BEIRUT (AP) — A group of Syrian nuns reportedly abducted by rebels from a convent in a Christian village near Damascus appeared in a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera Friday, denying they have been kidnapped and saying they were in a safe location away from the shelling.
The nuns appeared healthy in the video shown on the satellite channel. They sat on sofas in a house at an undisclosed location, and took turns speaking.
“The brothers are treating us well and have brought us from the convent here and we are very happy,” one of them says to the camera. The video appeared authentic, but it was impossible to independently verify it or to know if the nuns were speaking under duress.
The reported abduction of the nuns has increased concerns about the treatment of Christians by hard-liners in the rebel ranks, particularly as the fighting engulfs a series of ancient Christian villages north of Damascus.
A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and religious officials had said the Orthodox nuns and three civilians were taken by rebels from the Mar Takla convent in Maaloula after rebels overran the village, and were being kept in the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Pope Francis has called for prayers for the nuns.
In the video, 13 nuns took turns at speaking, saying they were in a “villa” and had been merely taken out of Maaloula for their own safety after it came under heavy shelling. Another says they will be released in the coming few days once the shelling stops.
Christians and other minorities tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, who comes from a Shiite offshoot sect. They are concerned about the rising role of al-Qaeda-linked group in the rebel movement, dominated by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. The hard-liners have been accused of vandalizing churches and abducting several clerics.
Also Friday, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a building manned by paramilitary forces in a mainly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria, killing at least five people, according to the state news agency and activists.
The blast in Qamishli follows clashes between Kurdish gunmen and Islamic militant groups led by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that left hundreds of people dead in recent months.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. The capital Damascus and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.
Assad’s forces largely pulled out of the region late last year when the Syrian military was stretched thin by fighting with rebels elsewhere in the country, effectively ceding control of the area, though they maintain some security posts. Their withdrawal sparked a fierce competition between rebels — mainly Islamic militant factions — and the Kurds.
Kurdish gunmen have been able over the past few months to drive out Islamic militant fighters allied to the rebellion from most of their areas in northeastern Syria. Last months, Kurds declared their own civil administration in areas under their control.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said the explosion occurred on a crowded street in Qamishli, which is in Hassakeh, killing six people and wounding 30.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said the attack targeted a building manned by pro-government gunmen known as National Defense Forces. It said the blast killed at least five and wounded 10.
The Observatory said it is not clear if the dead were members of the National Defense Forces.
In the northern province of Aleppo, the Observatory said, government helicopter gunships struck the village of Bazzagha killing at least six people, including two women and three children. It added that six other people are feared dead as a result of the air raid.
The Aleppo Media Center said 12 people were killed, including a 2-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl. It said the raid damaged six buildings and several cars.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.