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Syrian rebels battle army in Christian town

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces battled Tuesday with al-Qaida-linked rebels trying to capture an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, activists and the state media said.

The Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, appears to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christian minority, who tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, and other al-Qaida-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.

The assault on Sadad, some 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Damascus, began at dawn Monday, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Local police fought back the initial assault and were reinforced by the army.

The rebel attack seemed to target a chief hospital in the town, said the Observatory, which monitors fighting through a network of activists on the ground. He said that there was also fighting in the nearby town of Muhin and that the Nusra Front controlled the main road leading to Damascus.

In September, rebels including Nusra Front members briefly captured the Christian town of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus. Maaloula is an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Troops recaptured most of the town days after the rebels took it.

President Bashar Assad has drawn support from Syria's patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot, in the country's civil war, now in its third year. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

Al-Qaida-linked militant groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are among the most active rebel factions in Syria. They have fought other rebel brigades to seize strategic border areas, and are also battling Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

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