Maaloula village, northeast of the capital Damascus, Syria.
A general view of Maaloula village, northeast of the capital Damascus, Syria. Photo by AFP
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Syrian government troops seized two villages, one of them an ancient Christian hamlet, north of Damascus on Monday, as part of the military's relentless offensive along the rugged frontier with Lebanon, state media and activists said.

Syria's state news agency said forces loyal to President Bashar Assad captured Sarkha early Monday before also quickly sweeping rebels out of the nearby village of Maaloula. The Lebanese TV channel al-Mayadeen, which closely follows the Syrian conflict, briefly broadcast footage that it said was from inside Maaloula, a predominantly Christian village, showing a cluster of buildings set in hilly terrain.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, confirmed that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.

The seizure of the villages comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shi'ite militant Hezbollah group captured the nearby town of Rankous.

The push is part of an offensive that government forces have been waging since November in the Qalamoun area along the border with Lebanon. Assad's troops have captured a string of rebel strongholds in the region in an effort to cut a vital opposition supply line across the frontier used to support rebels around the capital, Damascus.

Maaloula is an important symbolic prize for Assad loyalists. Government supporters often claim that Assad is the only leader who can protect Syria's patchwork of Muslim and Christian minority sects.

The village, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the capital, has a large Christian population. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.

Rebels seized Maaloula in early December, even as they were under fire from pro-Assad forces at the time. The rebels included fighters of the Al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, who abducted 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting. The nuns were released unharmed in March in exchange for the Syrian government releasing dozens of Syrian women from prison.

At the time, the abduction added to fears that hard-line Sunni Muslim rebels were targeting Christians as the three-year Syrian conflict grows increasingly sectarian.