Syria clashes blazes ancient souk, UNESCO calls it tragedy
Beirut: The clashes between Syrian Army and the rebels left hundreds of shops in the centuries-old ancient market blazing even as UNESCO termed the loss as a tragedy.
Hundreds of shops in The Aleppo market, a major tourist attraction, were reportedly engulfed in flames on late Friday was still burning on Saturday after severe fighting took place between Syrian Army and rebels.
The medieval souk is one of the cultural sites in the country that have become collateral damage in the civil war. Famous for its narrow stone alleys and stores selling perfume, fabrics and spices, the area has been the site of shelling and gunfire for weeks.
But amateur video posted Saturday showed wall-to-wall flames engulfing wooden doors as burning debris fell away from the storefronts.
"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 center 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.
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.
Once considered a bastion of support for Assad, Aleppo has become the focus of the insurgency for the last two months, with rebels taking about half the city. Aleppo would be a major strategic prize: A rebel victory would give Syria's opposition a major stronghold near the Turrkish border, while a regime victory would give Assad some breathing space.
It's not clear what set off the fire in the old market, made of hundreds of stone stalls that line covered alleys with vaulted ceilings. Amateur footage posted online by activists showed flames engulfing the shops and rebels aiming a water hose at the fire. The shops' wooden doors, along with the clothes, fabrics and inside some of the businesses, helped fuel the blaze, activists said.
The market stalls lie beneath the city's towering 13th century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 30,000 people, according to activists. It has also wreaked widespread destruction, particularly in recent weeks as regime forces stepped up air strikes and shelling attacks, and rebels fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Entire neighborhoods in Syria's three largest cities — Aleppo, the capital Damascus and Homs — have been devastated.
A majority of Syria's 23 million people live in a thin western sliver of the country; in this territory, rebels have established positions in rural areas, while Assad's forces are trying to hold on to the cities.
Aleppo's old center was added in 1986 to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Of the medieval souks in the Middle East, Aleppo's was among the best-preserved, offering visitors a range of architectural styles covering hundreds of years, said Rodrigo Martin, a Brussels expert on Syrian historical sites.
"It was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture," said Martin, a spokesman for a group of experts who monitor damage to Syrian historical sites and cooperate with the U.N. cultural agency.
(With Agency Inputs)