Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village

A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of al Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013, in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.
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BEIRUTAl-Qaeda-linked rebels launched an assault on a regime-held Christian mountain village in the densely populated west of Syria and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus, on Wednesday - part of a brutal battle of attrition each side believes it can win despite more than two years of deadlock.

In the attack on the village of Maaloula, rebels commandeered a mountaintop hotel and nearby caves and shelled the community below, said a nun, speaking by phone from a convent in the village. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

With the world focused on possible U.S. military action against Syria, there were new signs of fragmentation in rebel ranks, with a small group of jihadis from Russia announcing it has broken away from an umbrella group known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Syria conflict, which began with a popular uprising in March 2011, has been stalemated, and it's not clear if U.S. military strikes over the regime's alleged chemical weapons use would change that. President Barack Obama has said he seeks limited pinpoint action to deter future chemical attacks, not regime change.

Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of civilians.

Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force, with a vote not expected before the week. Meanwhile, he has wonlittle international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.

France's Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also made a passionate appeal for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for a chemical attack on Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.

Ayrault addressed the French National Assembly at the beginning of a debate on the wisdom of a French military response. Wednesday's debate ended without a vote - since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one - but it was part of his government's delicate dance to rev up support at home for an unpopular intervention.

While the U.S. and the French weigh possible strikes, the fighting in Syria grinds on.

In Damascus, children are not going to school, and many businesses are closed, meaning idle residents of Syria's capital are faced with continuous stress over the country's civil war -- and a looming American air strike, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports. It is also packed: anyone from nearby who is able seems to have crowded the city's center seeking its relative safety.

The Assad government has taken to setting up militias in the Damascus suburbs, a kind of civilian defense force on steroids to help the overstretched military, Palmer reports.

On Wednesday morning, rebels from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group launched the assault on predominantly Christian Maaloula, some 40 miles northeast of Damascus, according to a Syrian government official and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.

At the start of the attack, an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the village, said the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.

The explosion was followed by fighting between the rebels and regime forces. Eventually, the rebels seized the checkpoint and disabled two tanks and an armored personnel carrier, the Observatory said. At least eight regime soldiers were killed in the fighting, the group said.

The nun said the rebels had taken over the Safir hotel atop a mountain overlooking the village and where shelling from there. "It's a war. It has been going from 6 a.m. in the morning," she said from her convent.

The said the convent houses 13 nuns and 27 orphans. She said around 80 people from the village had come to the convent for safety.

A Syrian government official confirmed the assault and said the military was trying to repel the rebels. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

Maaloula is a mountain village with about 2,000 residents, who are among a tiny group in the region that still speaks a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times also believed to have been spoken by Jesus.