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Christians take up arms in Aleppo

Thursday, 13 September 2012 - 1:50pm IST | Place: Beirut | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
The Christian community has tried to avoid taking sides in the Syrian civil war.

Christians in Aleppo have taken up arms and formed their own militias for the first time.

The Christian community has tried to avoid taking sides in the Syrian civil war.

In Aleppo, it recruited vigilantes from the Scout movement to protect churches, but as the war moved into the city and spread across its suburbs it has begun to accept weapons from the Syrian army and joined forces with Armenian groups to repel opposition guerrillas.

"Everybody is fighting everybody," said George, an Armenian Christian from the city. "The Armenians are fighting because they believe the FSA are sent by their Turkish oppressors to attack them, the Christians want to defend their neighbourhoods, Shabiha regime militia are there to kill and rape, the army is fighting the FSA, and the [Kurdish militant group] PKK have their own militia too."

For the past six weeks, up to 150 Christian and Armenian fighters have been trying to prevent Free Syrian Army rebels from entering Christian heartland areas of Aleppo.

Last month the Syrian army claimed a "victory" in removing FSA fighters from the historic Christian quarter of Jdeideh. But Christian militia fighters claimed they had first attacked the FSA there.

"The FSA were hiding in Farhat Square in Jdeideh. The church committees stormed in and cleansed the area. Then the Syrian army joined us. They claimed the victory on State television," said George, who like many Christian refugees is too scared to give his full name. "The rebels were threatening the churches."

Snipers positions and checkpoints had appeared in the area, defined by boutique shops, narrow cobbled streets and the spires and cupolas of the Maronite, Orthodox and Armenian churches, residents said.

"FSA snipers were on the rooftops and they were attacking the Maronite church and Armenian residents there," said a former clergyman calling himself John, now in Beirut, who said he had witnessed the fighting.

The battle for Aleppo has become bitter, with militant jihadist groups playing a more prominent role than in any other city.

It has become increasingly scarred by accusations of atrocities on both sides, most recently the mass killing of 20 regime troops, whose bodies were displayed on a video apparently put on the internet by a rebel militia.

Residents of the city said that its minorities feared that they would suffer the same fate as Christians in Iraq, who were targeted in sectarian violence after the 2003 war.

"They are shouting, 'The Alawites to the graves and the Christians to Beirut'," said an Armenian mother of four who recently fled the city - a claim made by several other Christian refugees.

John said that, contrary to reports, Aleppo's minority groups and wealthy residents were not all regime supporters. But he said they felt they had to protect themselves from "peasant immigrants" who were using the war to destroy the city's sophisticated heart.

"I am not in support of the government, but the FSA are all a bunch of thugs and thieves. I watched them steal from a textile factory - they took everything; gas, materials, even the beading machines!"

Increasingly on the offensive, Syrian rebels killed at least 18 soldiers in a car bomb and ground attack on a military position in neighbouring Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In Aleppo yesterday, four Syrian Armenians were reported killed and 13 wounded in an ambush near the airport.

The new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus today (Thursday), in yet another effort to end the fighting.

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