BEIRUT — Syrian troops launched an offensive Monday 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 2 1/2 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 U.S. 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 Aug. 21 assault near the Damascus. The U.S. 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.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier Monday 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 U.S. position that there is very compelling evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against his own people.
Assad warned in an interview broadcast Monday on CBS that there will be retaliation against the U.S. for any military strike against Syria.
"You should expect everything. Not necessarily from the government," he said when asked to elaborate, an apparent reference to the possibility the regime could unleash allied militant groups such as the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. He added that the U.S. would "pay the price if you are not wise with dealing with terrorists."
He also denied that he was behind the attack, saying his soldiers were "in another area" at the time and noting that no evidence has been presented.
Meanwhile, Belgian writer Pierre Piccinin who was freed Sunday after four months of captivity in Syria said upon his return to Europe that he and his fellow captive, Italian journalist Domenico Quirico, were certain that the Assad regime was not responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
"It's not the government of Bashar al-Assad that used the sarin gas or another combat gas ... we are sure about it following a conversation that we overheard," Piccinin said in an interview with Belgian broadcaster RTL.
Piccinin's claim stands in stark contrast to declassified intelligence reports from France and the U.S., which put the blame for the deadly attack on Assad's regime. Piccinin, who largely avoids looking into the camera during the interview, did not provide further proof for his claim. Instead, he said he and Quirico would publish their information later, "at an appropriate time."
Piccinin says he was captured on his eighth trip to Syria, describing himself as a vigorous supporter of the Syrian rebels' quest to oust Assad and introduce democracy. That, he told RTL, makes it all the more difficult for him to say that it wasn't Assad behind the al-Ghouta attack.
The claim could not be independently verified, and Quirico was quoted later Monday in La Stampa saying there is no way to know the truth behind it.
"It's folly to say I know that it wasn't Assad who used the gas," he was quoted saying on the website.
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country has warned the U.S. against attacking Syria and has exchanged messages with Washington about it.
Maaloula, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, had until recently been firmly under the regime's grip despite sitting in the middle of rebel-held territory. The village was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language believed to have been used by Jesus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Qalamon Liberation Front still control Maaloula, but troops shelled suspected rebel positions on the hills surrounding the area in an apparent bid to isolate the opposition forces in the village.
Rebels, who seized control of the village on Saturday, have said in a video that they will pull out after having achieved their objective of blowing an army post there "that was used to harm Muslims."
In the video, which appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting, a masked commander surrounded by eight masked gunmen said "we will soon withdraw from this city not out of fear but to leave the homes to their owners."
The commander said that explosions and shooting heard in the background were from regime forces shelling the village.
Two nuns also appeared in the video, saying they were well-treated by the rebels. "They behaved well with us and they did not harm us," one said at the rebels' prompting.
Meanwhile, all but some 50 of the 3,300 villagers have fled, according to a resident who left the area in the past days.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from rebels, said a truce Monday morning allowed paramedics to evacuate 10 wounded Christian residents. He added that one church on the western side of the village was burnt.
A nun in the village told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that Nusra Front members entered her convent early Monday and took pictures and videos of the site.
"The Syrian army is on the outskirts," said Pelagia Sayaf, who heads the Mar Takla convent. "There are sporadic clashes and I can hear the sound of warplanes."
In other violence, the Observatory said three rockets hit a traffic police station in the central city of Homs, killing 11 policemen and wounding more than 10, after midnight Monday. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, which began as an uprising against Assad's regime in March 2011.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Beirut.