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Syria fighting leaves historic Aleppo market in flames

The extent of damage to the Souk Madina in the Old City is unknown as rebels and government forces continue to battle for control of Aleppo.

September 29, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A fire rages at the centuries-old bazaar, the Souk Madina, in Aleppo’s Old City on Saturday. The image is taken from Shaam News Network video that has been authenticated based on its contents and other reporting.
A fire rages at the centuries-old bazaar, the Souk Madina, in Aleppo’s… (Shaam News Network )

BEIRUT — The historic bazaar in the Syrian city of Aleppo was in flames Saturday, the latest casualty in a lingering conflict that has taken its toll not only in human lives but in damage to Syria's infrastructure and heritage.

The Souk Madina in Aleppo's Old City caught fire as fighting continued to rage in the nation's most populous city, where rebels and government troops have been battling for control for more than two months.

Video posted on the Internet showed flames engulfing part of the centuries-old bazaar, one of the city's landmark structures and long a favored tourist destination. A separate video showed what appeared to be the charred remains of vendors' stalls in the souk.

The sprawling covered market, home to multitudes of shops, is known for its narrow internal passageways, which wind beneath vaulted stone arches. Much of the structure dates from the Ottoman era. But the souk has remained an active market and a popular attraction for area shoppers and foreign visitors seeking bargains and atmosphere.

The extent of the damage to the market was not clear.

One opposition activist reported that hundreds of shops had burned and that rebel fighters were trying to extinguish the fires.

Each side in the conflict reportedly blamed the other for the blaze. Snipers were said to be active in the area, possibly hindering efforts to douse the flames.

UNESCO has issued a public appeal for the protection of Aleppo, considered a World Heritage city because of its ancient history and wealth of architectural monuments. The city is also Syria's commercial hub.

Since fighting for control of Aleppo broke out July 20, the city has been divided into government-held and rebel-occupied districts. Government forces have used artillery and aerial bombardment against opposition-held districts. Rebels have fired back with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs.

Opposition forces announced a new offensive Thursday, but it was unclear whether they had been able to make any substantial advances. Clashes continued Saturday on numerous fronts.

The official government news agency reported that troops had killed scores of "terrorists," the official designation for armed rebels, in Aleppo on Saturday. There were no precise casualty figures after the three days of renewed fighting.

Rebels control much of Aleppo's Old City. But government forces are stationed at a pair of historic monuments: the medieval citadel, the city's signature landmark, and the Umayyad Mosque. The opposition says government forces have turned the mosque into a fortified military position.

Syria has been a crossroads of civilization for thousands of years, leaving it with a rich cultural legacy. UNESCO counts six Syrian sites, including Aleppo's Old City, on its World Heritage list. Conservationists have voiced concern for the status of several sites, including the Crac des Chevaliers, a medieval Crusader castle near Homs where battles have raged.

Apart from damage to historic sites, Syria's 18-month uprising has left much of the nation's infrastructure destroyed and reduced parts of many cities. towns and villages to rubble. More than 20,000 people have died since the rebellion began, according to estimates.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.

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