BEIRUT (AP) — Government troops battled al-Qaida-linked rebels for a Christian village in western Syria for a second day Thursday, while world leaders gathered in Russia for an economic summit expected to be overshadowed by the prospect of U.S.-led military strikes against the Damascus regime.
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered their ancient village Wednesday night. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of the of the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Despite a heavy army presence in the village, Abdul-Rahman said the rebels staged hit-and-run attacks there, at one point patrolling its streets on foot and in vehicles, and briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
The rebels launched the assault on Maaloula — which is on a UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites — on Wednesday after an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain village. The village, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between President Bashar Assad's troops and Nusra Front fighters persisted in the surrounding mountains, according to the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria's civil war.
Speaking by phone from a convent in the village, a nun told The Associated Press that the rebels left a mountaintop hotel Thursday after capturing it a day earlier. The nun said the frightened residents expect the Islamic militants to return to the Safir hotel and resume shelling of the community below.
"It's their home now," the nun said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals. She said about 100 people from the village took refuge in the convent. The 27 orphans who live there had been taken to nearby caves overnight "so they were not scared."
Elsewhere Thursday, a car bomb exploded outside a research center belonging to the Ministry of Industry in area of Soumariya near Damascus, killing four people and wounding several others, a government official said. The official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Three people were wounded when mortar shells hit two residential neighborhoods of Damascus, the state news agency SANA reported. Rebels fighting to topple Assad have frequently fired mortars in the capital, seeking to thwart attempts by the regime to portray life there as normal despite the civil war that rages across Syria.
In the northern province of Aleppo, a Syrian surgeon working for an international aid group was killed. Doctors Without Borders said the 28-year-old surgeon, Muhammad Abyad, died in an attack. Abyad, whose body was found Tuesday, had been working in an Aleppo hospital run by the group.
The conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. Two years of fighting have led to a stalemate, with the rebels controlling much of the countryside in the north, east and south, and the regime holding most urban centers in the west, where the majority of Syrians live.
The four-decade iron rule of the Assad family long has rested on support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shiite Muslims and Kurds. The Assad family and key regime figures are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
More than 100,000 people have been killed, with nearly 7 million people uprooted from their homes. U.N. officials estimate that 5 million have been displaced inside the country while another 2 million have fled to neighboring countries. The total amounts to nearly a third of Syria's population, which was 23 million before the fighting began.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos met with Syrian government officials in the capital, lobbying for access to civilians trapped in areas where fighting has raged.
After meeting with the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Amos told the AP that she is "extremely concerned that the situation on the ground is becoming worse."
An alleged chemical attack near Damascus in August has brought the U.S. to the brink of launching punitive airstrikes after the Obama administration concluded that Assad's forces were responsible.
President Barack Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing the regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people.
Obama has called chemical weapons use a "red line." Top administration officials have argued before the U.S. Senate and around the world that Assad would take inaction by Washington as a license for further brutality against his people.
So far, however, Obama has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.
At the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Obama will confront Syria's closest supporter, Russia, as well as foreign leaders skeptical of his call for an international military intervention in Syria.
Moscow and Washington have sharply disagreed over ways to end the bloodshed with Russia protecting the Assad regime from punitive actions in the United Nations. The U.S. has backed the opposition and repeatedly has called on Assad to step down. He has refused and the U.S. has been supporting the rebels with non-lethal aid and by training some rebel units in neighboring Jordan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insists the U.S. has yet to prove its case for striking Syria, although he appeared to have tempered his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview Wednesday with the AP. He said that he wouldn't rule out backing a U.N. resolution if it can be proved Assad used chemical weapons, as the U.S. has alleged.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Syrian Foreign Minster Walid al-Moallem will travel to Moscow on Monday for a meeting with his Russian counterpart.
European Union President Herman Van Rompuy urged U.N. investigators to release information as soon as possible about the purported chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 so that the international community can decide how to respond.
In unusually strong language, Van Rompuy told reporters in St. Petersburg that the attack "was a blatant violation of international law and a crime against humanity." But, he said, it's too early for a military response.
Pope Francis urged world leaders to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria and work instead for dialogue and negotiation to end the conflict.
In a letter to Putin, the pope lamented that "one-sided interests" had prevailed in Syria, preventing a peaceful solution and allowing the continued "senseless massacre."
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.