Aleppo fire destroys 700 years of heritage

As many as 1,000 shops in the Old City quarter of Aleppo were feared destroyed in fires that began on Friday during street fighting between remine forces and and the rebel Free Syrian Army.

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Damascus // Aleppo's ancient covered market, one of the country's prized historic sites, was engulfed in flames yesterday as heavy fighting raged in Syria's commercial capital.

As many as 1,000 shops in the Old City quarter, a roofed labyrinth of alleyways once bustling with tourists and local shoppers, were feared destroyed in fires that began on Friday.

Street fighting between regime forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army made it impossible for any organised effort to extinguish the flames.

Aleppo's Old City, a Unesco world heritage site with souqs dating to the 14th century, was among Syria's best examples of a largely intact and historically important area that, rather than decaying into ruin, was very much a part of day-to-day life, selling everything from clothes to food.

It remained unclear yesterday how severe the damage was but many of the shops had wooden fronts and timber-beam ceilings easily destroyed by fire.

"We still have no accurate picture about it but the shops are vulnerable, they are made from stone blocks and wood and there seems to be no way for the fires to be put out, they will have to just burn," said a political analyst in Damascus.

Syrians are proud of their country's historical importance and the richness of its past, with tourism revenues once accounting for almost 10 per cent of national income. But while they talk of the destruction of cultural heritage as a great loss, it is the growing the human cost of the war that weighs most heavily on their shoulders.

Almost everyone seems to have had a family member or friend killed in the spreading violence.

The death toll since the uprising began last March stands at more than 30,000, according to human rights organisations and activists.

There is no accurate figure for the number of people wounded, but aid workers in Damascus have estimated it is likely to be up to five times greater than the death toll.

Health services have been swamped and fear of arrest means many in opposition-held areas prefer to risk death at home or in crude, activist-run field hospitals, rather than face detention by the feared security services if they seek treatment in state-run facilities.

At least 70 people were killed nationwide yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a nationwide network of grassroots activists. Most of the dead were in Damascus and its suburbs, where security forces have been continuing assaults in rebel strongholds to the east of the city.

Government forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad and armed rebels seeking his overthrow are now fighting on a regular basis in most Syrian provinces, with daily death tolls rarely dropping below 100.

Aleppo, which for the opening year of the uprising remained largely quiet, has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds after rebels began an assault designed to take over the city in July.

Regime forces have made extensive use of artillery and air strikes in an effort to unseat thousands of lightly armed rebels, and damage to opposition held areas is widespread.

But while the front line shifts everyday, neither side seems to be on the brink of victory. Two months after moving into Aleppo, the rebels are holding on.

Sana, Syria's official news agency, said scores of "terrorists" - the term used by the regime to describe insurgents - were killed in military operations in Aleppo yesterday.

It also reported "killing many terrorists" in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh, on the north eastern edge of the city and said security forces had discovered a "terrorist den" in nearby district of Qaboun, including a mortar tube and mortar bombs.

Residents of Qaboun say government forces using bulldozers have demolished homes in the area, which has emerged as one of many rebel zones in and around the capital, despite containing major military installations including Republic Guard and special forces centres.

The conflict in Syria, which began with isolated, peaceful protests demanding greater political freedoms, has turned into a full-scale civil war.

Syrian officials have long insisted they are fighting a foreign-backed conspiracy, not facing a population wanting to see political change after more than four decades of autocratic, one-party rule.

As the war has intensified, it has taken on international dimensions, pitting Syria and allies Iran, Russia and China against western states, Turkey and their Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

That Syria is now the battleground in a proxy war was made clear yesterday by Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"The victory of the government of Syria against internal opponents, America, and their other western and Arab supporters, is counted as a victory of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said in comments carried by Iranian state news agency IRNA.

He also brushed aside concern the Syrian regime has been unable to quash the rebellion, despite 18 months of intensive effort to do so.

Rebels in Damascus last week managed to attack the army headquarters, destroying much of the building in a heavily defended area of the capital and, according to opposition sources, more than a dozen senior military officers present at the time.

"The victory of the Syrian government is certain," Mr Velayati said. "The Syrian government's position has stabilised, and some … explosions and assassinations cannot bring down the regime."