BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamist fighters in Syria have taken over the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula and are holding several nuns in a monastery there, state news agency SANA said on Monday.
Fighting for the town, about five km (three miles) from the main road linking Damascus to Homs, is part of a wider struggle between rebel fighters and President Bashar al-Assad's forces for control of the strategic central Syrian highway.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had captured the old quarter of Maaloula after several days of fighting.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said he could not confirm the SANA report that Nusra fighters had stormed the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla and were holding several nuns captive.
But the monastery is in the old part of Maaloula, which is now under the control of the Nusra Front and other rebels, he said. Four rebel fighters were killed in fierce fighting on Monday as the army and pro-Assad militia fought to retake the district, Abdulrahman said.
Restrictions by Syrian authorities make it difficult to verify accounts from inside the country.
The town was the scene of heavy fighting in September, when it changed hands four times in a series of attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces. At the time, the Mother Superior at Mar Thecla denied reports circulated by pro-government groups that rebels had pillaged Christian sites.
The latest fighting coincides with a government offensive to secure other towns on the road from Damascus to the city of Homs and Assad's Alawite heartland overlooking the Mediterranean.
Control of the road would help secure Assad's grip over central Syria, and would also enable safe passage for hundreds of tonnes (1 tonne = 1.102 metric tons) of chemical agents which are due to be shipped out of the country by the end of the year for destruction.
The fighting prevented the head of the international mission overseeing the elimination of those weapons from going by road from Damascus to the port of Latakia during a visit last week.
Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said she had to travel by helicopter instead.
"Security remains a key challenge for all. The destruction of a chemical weapons program has never taken place under such challenging and dangerous conditions," Kaag told delegates of the OPCW in The Hague.
In the last fortnight Assad's forces have extended their control in Qara and Deir Attiyah, two towns near the road, and have been fighting to take a third, Nabak.
State television said on Monday the army had "completely eliminated armed terrorist groups" around Deir Attiyah and Nabak. The Observatory's Abdulrahman said rebels were still in part of Nabak but the western sector of the town, which is closest to the Damascus-Homs road, was under army control.
Before Syria's 2-1/2-year-old conflict erupted, Maaloula attracted both Christian and Muslim pilgrims. Some of its residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and the monastery of Mar Thecla had a reputation for miraculous cures.
Syria's Christian community, about 10 percent of the population, is wary of the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement. A small percentage of Christians so far have taken up arms in the civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.
(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)