Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad paid an Easter Sunday visit to a historic Christian town newly recaptured from jihadist-backed rebels as opposition fighters counter-attacked his forces in a key battleground city.
The surprise visit to Maalula, just north of Damascus, came as Pope Francis said in his Easter message that it was time for warring parties to “boldly negotiate” peace in Syria after three years of conflict estimated to have killed 150,000 people.
Assad’s regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of religious minorities from foreign-backed extremists, a notion his opponents dismiss as part of a divide-and-rule strategy also aimed at deterring Western support for rebels.
State television showed Assad, who has rarely appeared in public during the conflict, visiting Maalula’s Saint Sergius and Bacchus monastery damaged by “terrorists” — his regime’s term for its armed opponents.
“No people anywhere have ever had to face what Syria is facing today. Your unity… is what secured these victories,” Assad told regime forces near the rebels’ ex-headquarters in Maalula.
“We say congratulations to Syria, and even though the battle is long, we will always be ready to face the terrorists,” he added, after shaking their hands.
The television said Assad also visited nearby Ain al-Tineh village, where scores of men and women cheered his name.
“However much they (the rebels) destroy (Syria)… we will build it… Together we build it, together we protect it, together we will make it better and more beautiful,” he told the gathering.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolt against the Assad family’s four-decade rule but escalated into an insurgency and then a civil war after the regime launched a brutal crackdown.
As the war has intensified, it has also grown more sectarian, with jihadists flocking to the ranks of the Sunni-led rebellion and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement fighting alongside the regime.
Syria’s army took control of Maalula on Monday, backed by Hezbollah fighters.
Located about 40 minutes’ drive from Damascus, Maalula is one of the world’s oldest Christian settlements, and its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Rebel groups including Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, had seized it in early December. They kidnapped 13 nuns and traded them for women prisoners held in regime jails in March.
Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the conflict, and has viewed the rise of powerful jihadist groups among the rebels with growing concern.
– ‘Rebels reclaim initiative’ –
In Homs, rebels went on the counter-offensive, taking control of buildings in regime-held areas nearly a week after Assad’s forces launched a ground attack to reclaim besieged areas that are the opposition’s last remaining stronghold in the key battleground city.
Rebels and troops meanwhile battled on the edges of Homs’ besieged Old City, as the army pounded opposition areas with tank and rocket fire.
“The rebels have reclaimed the initiative, and have taken control of several buildings in the Jeb al-Jandali area” of Homs, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The counter-offensive began after the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, an ally of Syria’s rebels, killed five troops in a suicide car bomb attack Saturday in the same area.
The car bombing came after soldiers at a regime checkpoint at the entrance of the neighbourhood defected and abandoned their positions, said Abdel Rahman.
Only a handful of districts in the heart of Homs, referred to by activists as “the capital of the revolution”, remain under rebel control.
In the northern city of Aleppo, 10 people were killed in air raids on rebel neighbourhoods, said the Observatory.
Rebel areas of Aleppo have come under a fierce aerial attack since mid-December. Hundreds have been killed, most of them citizens.
French President Francois Hollande said, meanwhile, his government had “information” but no firm proof the Assad regime was still using chemical weapons.
Under the terms of the US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until end-June to destroy its chemical stockpile if it wants to ward off the threat of American air strikes.
Hollande’s statement came as four French journalists taken hostage in Syria were reunited with loved ones in an emotional homecoming after 10 months in captivity.