BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government has dispatched reinforcements including tanks and armored personnel carriers to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have clashed with regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.
Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaida-linked rebel faction attacked the 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, which is 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 United States has deemed a terrorist organization. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasize the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy.
In that vein, Syrian state television 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.
As the fighting continued on the ground inside Syria, 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 on Friday was expected to use the last day of the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia to continue his quest to scrounge up 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. On Friday, 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 Hezbollah group, an Assad ally that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon.
The G-20 summit's host, Russia, is staunchly opposed to 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.
On Friday, Russia's Interfax news agency said 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 on Friday morning for the Eastern Mediterranean with "special cargo."
The Ministry of Defense was unable to confirm the ships' departure. 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 stoked fears about a larger international conflict if the United States carries out airstrikes.
In Damascus, 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 late Thursday to House Speaker John Boehner, Laham appealed to the U.S. lawmaker 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 in Beirut contributed to this report.