Syrian rebel fighters announced on Tuesday their withdrawal from the historic Christian town of Maalula near Damascus, two days after they took control of it.
"To ensure no blood is spilt and that the properties of the people of Maalula are kept safe, the Free Syrian Army announces that the town of Maalula will be kept out of the struggle between the FSA and the regime army," a rebel spokesperson said in a video posted online.
The spokesperson for the Qalamun Liberation Front, which groups several anti-regime forces in the Qalamun area near Damascus, also said the withdrawal was "conditional.”
"The army and its shabiha [militias] must not enter into the town," said the spokesperson, whose name was not given in the video.
The town, home to about 5,000 people, is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip around Damascus and already have bases all around the capital.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and residents said rebel forces, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, had overrun Maalula.
The Britain-based Observatory said the Al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the forces that had taken control of the town.
Battalions affiliated with the Western-backed FSA had also entered Maalula, he said.
A spokesman for a key rebel battalion involved in the takeover said the decision to withdraw applies to all opposition fighters, including the Al-Nusra Front.
"Some Al-Nusra fighters were involved in the battle, but for the most part they were Syrians, not foreign [jihadists]. The decision to withdraw applies to all fighters, and doesn't exclude Al-Nusra," Ahfad al-Rasul spokesman Ibrahim al-Idelbi told AFP.
Idelbi meanwhile accused the loyalist army of bombing the town after opposition fighters entered it in order to try and discredit the rebels.
"The regime wants to portray us as extremists, but we would not target any sacred places," Idelbi said.
Amateur video distributed by activists showed damage to the facade of a convent in Maalula. The unidentified cameraman says the regime used "tank and rocket fire" to target it.
"We have withdrawn from Maalula because we want to show that our goal is not to destroy but to liberate. We will stay on the edges of Maalula, but residents who have left the town can of course return safely," Idelbi said.
Civilians started fleeing the town nearly a week ago, fearing an imminent escalation.
Picturesque Maalula, nestled under a large cliff, is considered a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria.
Many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use.