09/10/2014, 00.00
SYRIA
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Syrian Christians main victims of fighting among anti-Assad Islamists

In Ram Hamdan, a suicide bomber kills the leader of Ahrar al-Sham and 40 other people, including senior commanders of the extremist movement. Fingers point at the Islamic State, which in the past has carried out similar attacks against the rival group. Al Nusra forces encircle the Greek Orthodox stronghold of Mhardeh with the goal of seizing its government military base.

Damascus (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The ongoing fighting among extremist Islamist anti-Assad groups continues deadlier than ever with the Islamic State (IS) gaining the upper hand. The rising violence and terror are a threat to minorities, especially Christians, whose ancient presence is increasingly in jeopardy. This is particularly true for the Greek Orthodox town of Mhardeh, one Syria's remaining Christian strongholds, which is under siege from Jabhat al-Nusra forces.

Hassan Abboud, leader of the Syrian Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham, is the latest high-ranking victim in the ongoing struggle among anti-Assad factions. He was among the top commanders killed in the bomb blast at a meeting in the north-western town of Ram Hamdan, near Idlib. At least 40 people may have died in the attack.

Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven Islamist rebel groups. Although it is hard-line Islamist in orientation, it has opposed and clashed with the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) group that set up an Islamic Caliphate in the parts of Iraq and Syria it seized.

In an interview, Abboud himself had denounced IS, saying it represented "the worst image ever of Islam". And in recent months, IS fighters have directly attacked Ahrar al-Sham on several occasions.

IS, which is suspected in yesterday's attack, was in fact blamed when another Ahrar al-Sham leader, Abu Khaled al-Suri, was killed in a suicide bomb attack on his headquarters in Aleppo in February.

Unlike IS, Ahrar al-Sham does not intend to swear allegiance to non-Syrian organisations or groups. Although its orientation remains extremist, its only goal is to overthrow the regime in Damascus.

Still, whilst the Islamist opposition to President Assad remains divided, Islamists - without exception - continue to target the country's religious minorities, especially Christians.

The historic city of Mhardeh, one of the last Christian stronghold in Syria, is one of the latest victims.

Fighters from the Jabhat al Nusra, which is connected to the al-Qaeda terror network and is loyal to its Ayman al-Zawahiri, have surrounded the town, and relentlessly shelled it, day and night, in the past week an eyewitness said. Without power supplies, the city is "besieged on all sides, except for one road, but it's difficult to go on it", he added.

For centuries, Mhardeh was a safe haven for Syria's Greek Orthodox Christians (pictured), recently housing a population of approximately 23,000.

Known locally as the "city of the sun", before plunging into the thick of the Syrian civil war, it had already experienced al Nusra suicide attacks.

In recent weeks, militants have taken advantage of the lack of media coverage and international attention - whose focus is on the Islamic State and its push in Iraq - to renew its offensive against the Christian town and, more generally, across the Hama region.

However, according to sources in the Syrian opposition, jihadists were aiming at Mhardeh not because the population is Christian, but rather because they want to seize a major government military complex in the area.

Overall, al Nusra has generally shown itself to be "less extreme" than its jihadist counterpart of the Islamic State, which practices regular beheadings and crucifixions of defenceless civilians.

For example, after al Nusra captured and then released three nuns from the Christian town of Maaloula, the sisters reported that they had been "treated well".

However, Christian villages that have fallen into the hands of al Nusra and its allies, such as Kasab in the north of the country, have seen churches desecrated and religious monuments destroyed.

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