Beirut - Fires that gutted a vast mediaeval market have broken out in
other areas of the Old City of Aleppo, a world heritage site, as rebels
and government forces fight for the ancient heart of Syria's biggest
city, opposition activists said on Monday.
The rebels last week
announced a fresh attempt to seize the city, home of a large merchant
class that had mostly remained loyal to President Bashar Assad, and
appeared to have focused on the warren of alleyways that make up the
walled Old City.
With government forces holding the large
medieval citadel in the heart of the Old City, according to rebels, the
fighting that has already claimed more than 30 000 lives across Syria
seems certain to destroy more cultural treasures too.
"Rebels control more that 90% of the Old City now," said Ameer, an opposition activist working with rebel brigades.
But he said they were struggling to hold their positions under heavy artillery fire.
said the rebels still held the Souk al-Madina, a covered market of 13km
of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades that was once a
major tourist attraction.
Black smoke rising
that damaged or gutted more than 1 500 shops had been put out, Ameer
said, but new fires had now broken out in the Old City's Zahrawi, Aqaba
and Bab Al Nasr markets.
Plumes of black smoke were rising from many districts, and gunfire could be heard.
rebels are sensitive to suggestions that they might have brought the
conflict to one of Syria's greatest historic and commercial assets.
Aleppo was once the last stop before Europe for traders plying the
ancient Silk Route from Asia.
"It's urban warfare. I cannot blame any side specifically for the fires," Ameer said over Skype.
Director-General Irina Bokova said that, as a signatory to the 1954
Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of
Armed Conflict, Syria was obliged to safeguard its heritage from the
ravages of war.
"The human suffering caused by this situation is
already extreme," she said in a statement. "That the fighting is now
destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country's
millenary history - valued and admired the world over - makes it even
Pattern of repeated destruction
visitor to the Old City, who asked not to be named, said the fires,
which started on Saturday, were a side effect of the fighting in the
covered market, famous for its silks and fabrics.
fire started during clashes and spread quickly," he said, adding that
several rebel groups, including those from the most prominent Tawheed
Brigade, were involved in the rebel advance, which has had only marginal
success in the wider city of 2.5 million people.
The pattern of
fighting across Syria is one of repeated destruction. When rebel
fighters, lightly armed and low on ammunition, make progress, government
forces respond with artillery fire until rebels and civilians are
flushed out and the army can move in.
But rebels are often able
to sneak back, and the cycle restarts, suggesting a bleak prospect for
Aleppo's Old City, where fires on Sunday reached the perimeter of the
Great Mosque, parts of which date back over a thousand years.
believes that five of Syria's six world heritage sites have already
been damaged. The other sites include the ancient desert city of
Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers crusader fortress and parts of old
Around 30 000 people have now been killed in an 18-month-old uprising-turned-civil war.
5 children killed
forces shelled rebel strongholds in the eastern suburbs of the capital
Damascus on Monday and launched air strikes on the town of Salqeen in
the northern province of Idlib, killing at least 17 people, activists
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which maintains a
network of activists across Syria, said at least five children had been
killed in Salqeen, including three from the same family.
Video footage purporting to be of the victims showed the bloodied bodies of two children and an infant laid on a white sheet.