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Fierce fighting damages historic mosque in Aleppo’s Old City

Syrian rebels take position at the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo hours before the Syrian army retook control of the complex.

ALEPPO: Syria’s army regained control Sunday of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo after fierce clashes with rebels in and around the area damaged the historic site.

A leading human rights group accused the Syrian regime of stepping up its use of cluster bombs in the north as a response to recent rebel gains, while Turkey banned all Syrian aircraft from its airspace, a day after the authorities in Damascus took a similar step against Ankara.

“The army has expelled the armed groups from the Umayyad mosque,” a rebel military official told an AFP journalist at the scene in Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the reports.

“Regime forces have managed to retake control of the Omayyad Mosque, following fierce clashes against rebel fighters around the mosque and the withdrawal of the rebel groups,” 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 complex Saturday. They said regime forces had been based there since fighting erupted in Aleppo in mid-summer.

“The army was using the mosque as a base, because of its strategic location in the center of the Old City,” 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 were damaged by a fire that was sparked by clashes late last month.

In the north of the country, the Syrian army launched a counterstrike against rebels in a bid to wrest back control of positions lost in recent days, a pro-uprising monitoring group said.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, much of which is now in rebel hands, the army used fighter jets to bombard Maaret al-Numan, captured by the Free Syrian Army earlier this week, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

To the east of Maaret al-Numan, troops tried to block a new rebel assault on the Wadi Deif army base, the largest in Idlib province, where large quantities of fuel and tanks are stored.

The counterstrike came as rebels captured three army officers in Idlib, the Observatory said.

Last week rebels reportedly captured 256 soldiers in fighting near the Turkish border.

The ill-equipped rebel fighters have destroyed in recent week several military positions in the Idlib province and seized weapons.

“The importance of these operations lies in the weapons which the fighters seize during the attacks,” the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said.

Also, government troops withdrew from a military checkpoint near the town of Saraqeb, which is now fully in rebel hands.

In the Aleppo countryside, three rebel fighters were killed in clashes with troops near the so-called Base 46, scene of battles since late September.

Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that troops killed and captured “dozens of terrorists and destroyed anti-tank rockets” in Aleppo.

Elsewhere, two explosions hit the upscale district of Mezzeh in Damascus in the early hours of Sunday, the Observatory said, adding that one of them targeted the car of a pro-regime lawyer who was critically injured.

SANA said the other blast was a “suicide attack” that caused no casualties.

In Damascus province, regime forces regained control of an air defense base in Oteiba, a day after rebels had seized it.

For its part, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said new amateur videos and interviews with residents suggests the Syrian air force has dropped cluster bombs in the past week, mainly along a main north-south highway in western Syria that runs through Maaret al-Numan.

The Local Coordination Committees said 202 people were killed during Sunday’s violence in Syria, including 100 bodies found in a hospital between the Damascus suburbs of Daraya and Moadamieh.

Meanwhile, Turkey has banned all Syrian aircraft from its airspace as it takes an increasingly firm stance against President Bashar Assad.

Turkey’s confrontation with Syria increased in the past two weeks because of cross-border shelling and escalated on Oct. 10 when Ankara intercepted a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow, accusing it of carrying Russian munitions for Assad’s military.

Russia has said there were no weapons on the plane and that it was carrying a legal shipment of radar equipment.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkish airspace had been closed to Syrian planes. Syria on Saturday banned Turkish planes from flying over its territory.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an international conference in Istanbul Saturday that the world was witnessing a humanitarian tragedy in Syria.

“If we wait for one or two of the permanent members ... then the future of Syria will be in danger,” Erdogan said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2012, on page 1.

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