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By Ruth Sherlock, Beirut
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria is attacking one of the country’s remaining Christian strongholds, as it presses its offensive against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, are encircling the historic Christian town of Mhardeh and bombarding it with artillery, residents have told The Telegraph.
“There is shelling night and day. We have no electricity. There is only one road out and it is dangerous to use it now,” said Josef, a civil engineer in Mhardeh, who spoke using a pseudonym for fear of reprisals if the jihadists enter the town.
For centuries Mhardeh was a safe haven for Syria’s Greek Orthodox Christians, recently housing a population of approximately 23,000.
The spires of five carefully maintained churches are dotted on the town’s horizon, and its population is proud of the city’s heritage as the birthplace of Ignatius IV Hazim, the late Patriarch of Antioch.
Now however, Mhardeh – known locally as the “city of the sun” – has been plunged into the centre of the Syrian civil war.
The threat to the town is a stark reminder that jihadist bloodletting is not confined to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the group that has declared an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and made itself the focus of world attention.
Located just 20 miles north of the central city of Hama, on a road that leads to the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, and close to one of the Syrian government’s largest military bases, Mhardeh had long been a marked city.
For the rebels to advance against the regime in central Syria, cut off the government’s supply lines to their front lines in the northern city of Aleppo, and eventually reach the Alawites in Latakia, they need to control Mhardeh.
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