DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A day after rebel forces largely retook a predominantly Christian town north of the Syrian capital, the fate of 12 nuns remained unknown with both sides in the conflict blaming each other for their disappearance.
Syrian state media accused terrorists, its typical description of opposition fighters, of kidnapping the nuns from St. Thecla Convent and using them as hostages after they stormed Maaloula.
Hassan Taqi Al-Din, an activist with the Sham News Network, said it was government forces who kidnapped a priest and the group of nuns as the troops withdrew from the town. He said the Free Syrian Army had declared that it would not commit sectarian violence in the town, which has a mixed Christian and Muslim population.
Christians are a minority in predominantly Muslim Syria.
In a statement published by state media, Syria's Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi called on "the human conscience and all people who have good intentions" to work for the release of the nuns.
Control of the town, renowned as one of the few places where Aramaic, the presumed language of Jesus, is still spoken, is crucial because the nearby highway provides a route for reinforcements to both sides of the conflict. On Tuesday, clashes continued east of Maaloula, said Lt. Col. Abu Firas of the Free Syrian Army.
Meanwhile in central Damascus Tuesday, a suicide bomber set of his explosives at a military building, killing four other people, state media and activists said. The blast targeted the Martyr Compensation Unit of the military, which is under tight security and surrounded by numerous checkpoints, said activist Susan Ahmad.
Bombings have become relatively common in Damascus as opposition fighters, unable to seize control, instead conduct targeted attacks on government and military buildings.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Dubai and Times staff writer Abdulrahim from Los Angeles.