BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government sent reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have battled regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.
Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaida-linked rebel faction attacked the ancient mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday, and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria's religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.
The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He added that there were skirmishes Friday around the village, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria — Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
The assault is being spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel factions and a group the U.S. has deemed a terrorist organization. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also fought regime soldiers around the Christian village, according to the opposition coalition. FSA fighters "destroyed two regime checkpoints in Maaloula" and battled Assad's troops near the village's main entrance for two days before withdrawing from the area Thursday, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition said in a statement.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasize the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side in the civil war as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy.
In that vein, Syrian state TV said Friday the government is offering 500,000 Syrian pounds ($2,800) for turning in a foreign fighter, and 200,000 pounds ($1,150) for information about their whereabouts or assistance in their capture.
Civilians have paid the highest price in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000, displaced more than 4 million within Syria and forced another 2 million to seek shelter in neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
"It's a desperate situation, because behind these huge statistics lies a tragedy for families, for children for women and for men," U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut after two days in Syria.
"We worry a lot about those areas where people have effectively been under siege for six, seven, eight months," Amos said, adding that besieging entire neighborhoods and towns has become part of a military tactic by the warring sides.
"And when that happens, nothing is able to go in or out," Amos said. "This is a huge and massive problem, because it's not just about food, it's also about people who are injured or wounded and need urgent help, it's the people who on a regular basis need medical supplies."
As the fighting continued, President Barack Obama's administration forged ahead in its efforts to win congressional backing for military strikes against Syria over a suspected chemical attack on Aug. 21 outside Damascus. The U.S. accuses the Assad regime of being behind the attack, while Syria blames the rebels.
Obama was expected to use the last day of the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia to continue seeking foreign support for armed action. He has had little public success so far, with only France willing to take part in any military response.
The prospect of a U.S.-led strike against Syria has raised concerns of potential retaliation from the Assad regime or its allies. The State Department ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon over security concerns and urged private American citizens to depart as well.
The Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an Assad ally that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon.
The G-20 host, Russia, staunchly opposes any Western action against Syria. The Kremlin has continued its decades-long alliance with Damascus throughout the civil war, backing Assad militarily, economically and diplomatically.
Russia's Interfax news agency reported Moscow had three naval ships moving toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and another en route from the Black Sea. The privately owned agency said two amphibious landing crafts and a reconnaissance ship have already passed through the Dardanelles, while another landing vessel left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol for the eastern Mediterranean with "special cargo."
Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that Russia is boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean "primarily" to organize a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria. It is unclear how many ships Russia has there.
Reports of increased Russian naval presence near Syria have raised fears about a larger international conflict if the U.S. carries out airstrikes.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said the speaker of parliament, Mohammad Jihad Laham, urged the U.S. Congress to engage in a "civilized" dialogue with Damascus rather than resorting to a dialogue of "fire and blood."
In a letter sent to House Speaker John Boehner, Laham appealed to him and his colleagues "not to rush into any irresponsible, reckless action."
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Lynn Berry in Moscow, and Zeina Karam and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.