Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday ordered immediate repairs to a historic mosque in the city of Aleppo after fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces set parts of the compound on fire over the weekend.
Government troops had been holed up inside the 13th century Umayyad mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in downtown Aleppo for several months before rebels fighting to topple Assad launched a push to liberate it this week.
Activist Mohammad al-Hassan said the Army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the centre of the old city of Aleppo.
The regime and the rebels are now trading accusations over who is responsible for the fire at the mosque compound adjacent to Aleppo’s medieval citadel.
Videos posted by activists online show a large fire and black smoke raging inside the mosque on Saturday, and later, its blackened, pockmarked walls. Debris is strewn on the floors where worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpeting.
“Assad’s thugs set the mosque on fire as a punishment for being defeated by the Free Syrian Army,” the caption on the video read, referring to the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
The government today said it pushed back the rebels from the mosque after the weekend fighting, though activists are giving conflicting reports on who controls it.
The mosque is the latest victim of the violence plaguing Syria.
On September 29, a fire caused by the fighting swept through Aleppo’s covered market, burning more than 500 shops in the narrow, vaulted passageways.
Some of the country’s most significant historical sites have been turned into bases for soldiers and rebels, including historic citadels and Turkish bath houses.
In a possible effort to contain the fallout from the damage at the mosque, Assad issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013.