ALEPPO, Syria: Syria's army retook control Sunday of a historic mosque in second city Aleppo after fierce clashes with rebels in and around the area, a military official and an observer group said.
"The army has expelled the armed groups from the Umayyad mosque," the official told an AFP journalist at the scene.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the reports.
"Regime forces have managed to retake control of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, following fierce clashes against rebel fighters around the mosque and the withdrawal of the rebel groups from the mosque," the group said.
An AFP correspondent in Aleppo reported that clashes were extremely fierce and that they had moved into areas around the mosque.
Rebels had taken control of parts of the mosque complex on Saturday. They said regime forces had been based at the mosque since fighting erupted in Aleppo in mid-summer.
"The army was using the mosque as a base, because of its strategic location in the centre of the Old City of Aleppo," spokesman for the Revolutionary Council in Aleppo Abu Firas told AFP via the Internet.
"They were prohibiting people from going to pray there," he added. "The (rebel) Free Syrian Army had orders not to open fire inside the mosque."
Construction of the mosque began in the early 8th century, though it was destroyed by the Mongols and later rebuilt.
Next to it is a library that holds a collection of rare religious books. The nearby souks, or ancient market area, was damaged by a fire that was sparked by clashes late last month.
Experts fear Syria's heritage is under serious threat because of the conflict, with several historic sites having already suffered damage.