Beirut: Syrian rebels who seized an entry to a Christian town north of Damascus this week have now withdrawn to protect religious and archaeological sites there, an opposition statement said.
"Free Syrian Army (FSA) units on Wednesday destroyed posts at Maalula and Jabadine held by the army on the Damascus-Homs road after fierce clashes with President Bashar al-Assad`s forces and auxiliaries," the Syrian National Coalition said overnight.
"The FSA was stationed for several hours in the vicinity, but did not attack any church or convent," the statement added.
The Coalition stressed its "commitment to protect all Syrians, no matter what their religion, race, confession or political belief, and its constant concern to preserve Syria`s human and religious heritage by every means possible".
On Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said jihadist fighters of the Al-Nusra Front seized a military post at Maalula after a suicide attack.
It said regime warplanes later launched three air raids on the checkpoint taken by the Islamists.
A video posted on the Internet by rebels showed fighters speaking into walkie-talkies as the voiceover said, "Allahu akbar (God is greatest), liberation of the Maalula checkpoint."
The Observatory, which relies on a community of activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground for its information, said the assault began when a vehicle driven by a suicide bomber exploded at the checkpoint.
A resident of Maalula, a picturesque town 55 kilometres north of Damascus that sits nestled under a large cliff, told AFP the Al-Nusra Front assault began at 0300 GMT on Wednesday.
Speaking by phone from the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox monastery, the woman -- who asked not to be named -- said the rebels used shells and anti-aircraft machineguns, adding that some projectiles had hit the town centre.
"It`s the first time that we`ve been attacked," she said.
Maalula is a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use on Friday.
It is full of troglodyte caves dating back to the first centuries of Christianity.