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Damascus blast kills 4 as rebels seize Christian town Sharp rise in Europeans fighting in Syria

DAMASCUS, Dec 3, (Agencies): Four people were killed on Tuesday in a suicide bombing in central Damascus, hours after jihadists and other rebels seized a historic Christian town north of the capital. State television said the suicide attack in the Jisr al-Abyad neighbourhood killed four and injured 17, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it appeared to have targeted a government building. An AFP photographer at the scene said the bomber had blown himself up at the entrance of an administrative building belonging to the army, which was used to facilitate aid to the families of soldiers killed in combat. Footage of the scene broadcast by state television network Al-Ikhbariya showed the ground littered with rubble and broken glass, and at least one body in front of the building. North of the capital, rebels exchanged fire with government troops outside Maalula, a day after opposition forces captured the Christian hamlet in the strategic Qalamoun region. The small town is renowned as a symbol of the long Christian presence in Syria and is famous for the fact that many residents still speak the ancient language Aramaic, which Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken. “There are some exchanges of fire with army forces outside the town, but there is no major fighting and the opposition controls Maalula,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said. Rebel forces, including the jihadist Al- Nusra Front, swept into Maalula from the surrounding hills after rolling explosiveladen tires onto regime troops below.

Most of Maalula’s 5,000 residents fled in September, when rebel forces first entered the town before being pushed back to its outskirts by the Syrian army. On Tuesday, religious officials told AFP 12 nuns were taken from a convent in Maalula to the nearby rebel stronghold of Yabrud. It was not immediately clear whether the nuns had been kidnapped or merely evacuated for their own safety. Meanwhile, a new wave of Europeans is heading to Syria, their ranks soaring in the past six months as tales of easy living and glorious martyrdom draw them to the rebellion against Bashar Assad.

The western Europe-based rebels, mostly young men, are being recruited by new networks that arrange travel and comfortable lodging in the heart of rebel territory, and foster a militant form of Islam that Western security officials fear will add to the terror threat when the fighters return home. The 11 western European countries with the biggest contingents in Syria are estimated to have some 1,200-1,700 people among rebel forces, according to government and analyst figures compiled by The Associated Press.

That compares to estimates of 600-800 from those countries in late spring. The surge has occurred particularly in France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. It reflects the increasing ease of travel to Syria’s front lines and enthusiastic sales pitches by the first wave of European volunteers. A 21-year-old Dane became interested in Syria during a prison term in Denmark for assault and robbery, mainly through online rebel videos. He made two trips into Syria that totaled a little more than one month. He drove trucks carrying relief supplies and transported people, he said, but never fought. Nevertheless, he posted photographs online of himself with heavy weapons. “It is my duty to travel down there. This is a Muslim cause,” said the young man, a Muslim convert who did not want to be identified for fear of pursuit by authorities.

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