Beirut: Syrian troops on Monday launched an offensive against rebel-held positions on hills overlooking a mainly Christian village as they moved to regain control of the ancient community near the capital, Damascus, activists said.
The battle for Maaloula, has stoked fears among Syrian Christians that the alternative to Assad`s regime, which is made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, would not tolerate minority religions. Such concerns have helped Assad retain the support of large chunks of Syria`s minority communities, including Christians, Alawites, Druze and ethnic Kurds. Most of the rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
Diplomatic efforts to end the two and a half year conflict gained momentum as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed a call from Russia, its close ally, to place the country`s chemical arsenals under international control to avert a US strike, but he did not offer a time frame or any other specifics.
Al-Moallem`s remarks, made during a visit to Moscow, appeared to mark the first official acknowledgment by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons. But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.
The United States has been seeking international support for limited strikes against Assad`s government, which it accuses of using chemical weapons in an August 21 assault near the Damascus. The US cites intelligence reports as saying the attack killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, though other estimates are much lower.
President Barack Obama is also seeking authorization from Congress for the strikes.
Assad`s regime denies the allegations and blames rebels, whom it calls terrorists, for staging strikes to gain international sympathy.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier today that Assad could resolve the crisis by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week. Kerry reiterated the US position that there is very compelling evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against his own people.