“Maalula, city of culture and history, welcomes you,” reads a sign at the entrance to Syria’s best known Christian town. But any semblance of welcome evaporates once inside Maalula.
The army is fighting an invisible enemy, and an AFP team narrowly escaped sniper fire.
“We never see them, but we hear the shots fired by their Dragunovs,” the Russians’ favourite sniper rifle, said a soldier holding his weapon as he sheltered behind a wall.
A car is parked at the roadside, its windscreen has exploded and its driver looks dead. His belongings lie strewn on the pavement of thisghost town.
After an AFP photographer crossed one of Maalula’s streets, a sniper opened fire at the journalist. Bullets landed just metres (yards) away.
The journalist was forced to lie on the ground and hide behind a wall to escape the shots.
Every time he tried to move, the sniper opened fire immediately.
It was only as loyalist soldiers fired their own guns in the sniper’s direction that the journalist managed to escape.
An armoured vehicle arrived at the scene and opened fire, allowing the journalist to escape.
The soldier said: “It’s like this every day. We can only move without fear of sniping during the evenings.”
Maalula is nestled under a large cliff, whose summit is controlled by the rebels, making it difficult for the army to secure its grip there.
The town is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip on Damascus and already have bases circling the capital.
The army has “reclaimed most of the town, but the terrorists use their snipers to stop us from bringing it totally under control,” said a colonel who leads the loyalists’ operations in the historic town.
“We are continuing to make slow progress. But it is very difficult because we cannot bombard it, there are historic treasures,” the colonel told AFP.
Al Nusra Front released a video today celebrating what they claim is their victory in Maalula.