Syria Regime Piles Pressure on Rebel-Held Yabrud

Syria's army Tuesday turned its sights on the town of Yabrud, the last rebel stronghold in the strategic Qalamoun region near Lebanon's border, as it moved to open a key highway to Damascus.

The town is believed to be where a group of nuns from the historic Christian hamlet of Maalula have been transferred, reportedly in the hands of jihadist rebels from Al-Nusra Front.

The advancing army is trying to capture the Qalamoun region and sever rebel supply lines that run across the border with Lebanon.

In Spain, meanwhile, El Mundo newspaper announced that two Spanish journalists, Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, have gone missing in northern Syria.

The pair are believed to have been kidnapped in September by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist group linked to Al-Qaida.

In the mountainous Qalamoun region, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said regime forces were shelling Yabrud, a day after they captured the town of Nabak.

"The next operation in Qalamoun is most likely going to be Yabrud, the last opposition stronghold," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

In an email, the Observatory said regime forces "pounded the outskirts of Yabrud and the Rima area and the outskirts of the town of Nabak."

On Monday, Syria government forces, reportedly backed by fighters from Lebanon's Hizbullah and members of a Syrian pro-regime militia, took Nabak.

The regime has also taken control of the towns of Qara and Deir Attiya, which like Nabak lie along the strategic Damascus-Homs highway.

The highway has been closed by fighting, preventing the supply of fuel from a refinery in Homs to the capital and leading to power cuts, but authorities are expected to reopen it shortly.

The regime advance along the highway allowed rebel fighters to re-enter Maalula, from which they were evicted in September.

The picturesque village has long been a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its residents are some of the few in the world who speak Aramaic, believed to be the language of Jesus Christ.

Shortly after opposition fighters, including jihadists, entered Maalula last week, reports emerged that a group of nuns from its Mar Takla convent had been kidnapped.

Religious officials, including the Vatican's envoy to Damascus and the mother superior of a nearby convent, have said the 12 nuns had been moved to Yabrud.

There has been no official confirmation, although Abdel Rahman also said the nuns are believed to be somewhere on the outskirts of the town, adding that they were being held by Al-Nusra.

The women appeared Friday in a video broadcast by the Al-Jazeera news channel, apparently in good health and denying they had been kidnapped.

It was unclear who was filming the video, and whether the nuns were speaking under duress.

They were dressed in their traditional black robes and head coverings, but none were wearing their usual crucifixes.

They told the camera that a group had "brought us here and protected us," adding they were "very, very happy" and safe.

Media close to the Syrian regime accused rebels of using the nuns as "human shields", and Pope Francis has called for prayers for the nuns and "for all kidnap victims in the conflict."

In Spain, El Mundo said journalists Espinosa and Vilanova had been kidnapped on September 16 in Raqa province.

Despite indirect contact with the kidnappers, which resulted in information last month suggesting the pair are still alive, there has been no progress towards their release, nor any demands made.

Espinosa's wife, speaking at a press conference in Beirut, noted that the journalists had braved fierce conflict to report on the plight of Syrians.

"They have done so because we believe the Syrian people need our work, and that we must live up to our responsibility," she said.

"Javier and Ricardo are not your enemy. Please, honor the revolution they protected, and set them free."

Source: Agence France Presse

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