DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian mother superior on Tuesday accused opposition fighters of abducting 12 nuns from a predominantly Christian village near the capital that was overrun by rebels, and Syria's Greek Orthodox patriarch appealed for their quick release.
Febronia Nabhan, head of nearby Saidnaya Convent, said the nuns and three other women were taken the day before from the village of Maaloula to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, which also has a large Christian population.
Meanwhile, Syria's state TV reported that a suicide attacker blew himself up in central Damascus, killing four and wounding 17 others. The TV gave no further details about the blast in the central Jisr Abyad neighborhood and did not say what the target was.
Such blasts in Damascus are not uncommon and have killed scores of people in the city.
While two bishops and a priest have previously been kidnapped by rebels, no nuns have been reported harmed in the three-year conflict, which began as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad but later deteriorated into a civil war.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi called for the release of the Maaloula nuns. "We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely," Yazigi said in a statement issued Tuesday.
"We call upon the international community and world governments to (help secure the) release the nuns of Mar Takla Convent and the orphans who are being held since yesterday," he added. The statement did not say how many nuns were abducted.
Nabhan told The Associated Press that the Maaloula convent's mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, called her late Monday from Yabroud and said they were all "fine and safe."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said that "the fate of nuns at the Mar Takla Convent in Maaloula is unknown." It added there were conflicting reports on whether they were taken to a nearby area or not.
The Observatory says it received information late Monday saying that the nuns "are still alive." It gave no further details.
Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maaloula, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting. Activists say the rebels who stormed the town included members of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with President Bashar Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if the rebels, in whose ranks Islamic extremists are increasingly prominent, come to power. Christians have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalizing churches after taking Christian towns.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry urged the international community to condemn the rebel attack on Maaloula. In two letters sent to the heads of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General late Monday, the ministry said: "Syria is facing a barbarian war launched by extremist ... gangs targeting its present and future."
It said "terrorists" broke into Mar Takla Convent and held Sayyaf and a number of nuns "as hostages and sabotaged churches and houses."
The ministry urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn these terrorist acts in "the strongest terms" and exert pressure on the countries which are supporting these groups to stop providing them with logistical and financial support.
The state news agency SANA had reported Monday that six nuns, including Sayaf, were trapped in a convent in Maaloula.
In September, rebels seized parts of Maaloula only to be driven out within a few days by government forces.
The town was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.
Also in Syria, troops continued their advance in the western town of Nabek after they captured most of it Monday and reopened the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said that although the road was opened it is still dangerous because of fighting in nearby areas.
The highway is a key road leading to Syria's coast and could open the way for transporting the country's chemical weapons to be sent to the port of Latakia before they are taken out of the country for destruction.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is aiming to destroy Syria's entire chemical weapons program by mid-2014.
Across the border in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Lebanese troops began deploying in areas between pro and anti-Assad groups after four days of fighting that left a dozen people dead and more than 100 wounded.
The Tuesday deployment came a day after the government authorized the army to take charge of security in Lebanon's second-largest city for six months.
The army said in a statement that 21 people from both sides have been detained.
In the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, near the southern city of Sidon, a bomb exploded killing one person and wounding three including Mohammed Eissa, better known as Lino, a former senior official with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group, NNA and officials in the camp said.
Mroue reported from Beirut.