Sep 29, 2012 / 1:59 pm
A fire sparked by battles between Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops and rebel fighters tore through Aleppo's centuries-old covered market Saturday, burning wooden doors and scorching stone stalls and vaulted passageways.
The souk is one of a half-dozen renowned cultural sites in the country that have become collateral damage in the civil war.
The damage to one of the best-preserved old souks in the Middle East was the worst yet to a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria.
Across the country, looters have broken into a historic castle, stolen artifacts from museums and damaged ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra, antiquities officials and Syrian experts say.
The Aleppo market, a major tourist attraction with its narrow stone alleys and stores selling perfume, fabrics and spices, had been the site of occasional gun battles and shelling for weeks. But amateur video posted Saturday showed wall-to-wall flames engulfing wooden doors as burning debris fell away from the storefronts. Activists said hundreds of shops were affected.
"It's a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected," Kishore Rao, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris.
Most of the other sites recognized as heritage sites by UNESCO, the global cultural agency, are also believed to have suffered damage during the 18-month battle to oust Assad, Rao said. The ancient centre of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been hit the hardest, he said.
"It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," said Ahmad al-Halabi, a local activist speaking by phone from the area. He said rebels and civilians were trying to control the blaze, but only had a few fire extinguishers.
The fire in the souk erupted late Friday and was still burning Saturday, following fierce fighting between regime troops and rebels trying to drive pro-Assad fighters out of the city of 3 million.
On Thursday, rebels launched what they said would be a "decisive battle" for the city, followed by days of heavy fighting, including shelling and street combat. Amateur video has shown rebels taking cover behind walls and makeshift barriers, attacking regime forces with grenades and assault rifles. Activists reported heavy shelling by pro-Assad troops.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.
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