Middle East

Syria rebels seize Umayyad Mosque

Syrians inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion in the Akrama Jadideh neighborhood of Homs.

BEIRUT: Rebels seized control of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo Thursday after several days of fierce clashes that damaged the building, an activist group reported.

State news agency SANA, meanwhile, said a car bomb exploded in a regime-held suburb of the central city of Homs, killing one person and wounding 24 others.

In Aleppo, regime troops were forced to withdraw from the mosque at dawn, taking up positions in buildings around the landmark structure, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The mosque’s museum caught fire during the battle, causing its ceiling to collapse, adding to damage done in October when one of its colonnades was charred in clashes.

Aleppo’s director of Islamic endowments said the mosque’s library, which contains “valuable Islamic relics and Quranic manuscripts dating back to pre-Mamluk times,” had been ransacked and destroyed.

“Armed terrorist groups have looted and completely destroyed the Islamic library, which is one of the most valuable in the region with an estimated value of hundreds of thousands of Syrian pounds,” Abdel-Qader al-Shihabi told AFP.

The site has been a place of worship since the eighth century, but the original building was razed by the Mongols in the 13th century, from when the current structure dates.

Elsewhere in Aleppo’s UNESCO-listed Old City, fighting raged around the Justice Palace.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said that if the rebels gained control of the palace, they would be able to cut off army reinforcements to Aleppo’s regime-held citadel.

Rebels launched an offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial capital, in July 2012.

In months of street fighting, opposition fighters have slowly expanded the turf under their control. The fighting has left much of the city in ruins, and has caused damage to its rich archaeological and cultural heritage.

But while rebels have taken over large swathes of territory and a number of key military garrisons in Aleppo province, fighting in the city has been at a stalemate for months.

In Homs, “terrorists detonated a car bomb laden with large amounts of explosives in the Akrama Jadideh neighborhood, killing one civilian and wounding 24 others and causing serious material damage,” SANA reported.

The Britain-based Observatory said the blast took place near a public swimming pool in the government-controlled area of Akrama.

To the north of Aleppo, airstrikes targeted rebel positions around Menegh military air base, which has been under a protracted siege as the opposition battles for control of northern airports.

Warplanes also carried out several raids in Raqqa province.

And fierce clashes erupted in Damascus on the outskirts of rebel-held Jobar district in the east and near the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the south, said the Observatory.

The Observatory, which collects reports from a wide network of activists, rights lawyers and medics in civilian and military hospitals, said 157 people were killed nationwide Wednesday.

Also Thursday the Observatory reported that 12 civilians, including four members of one family, from the same Damascus district were killed under torture in prison after their arrest.

Families received the identity cards of the victims from the security forces Wednesday, according to the watchdog.

The men were all from Nahr Aisha district in the embattled south of the capital, which has seen regular raids and arrests by government troops that have resulted in the imprisonment, torture and killing of other residents, according to the Observatory.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists on the ground, also reported the deaths and identified the men by name.

The Observatory has documented hundreds of cases in which detainees have been tortured to death and many others in which torture led to permanent disability.

It estimates that “tens of thousands” of Syrians are being held in prisons throughout the country.

“There is no exact number of detainees because we don’t know what happens after their arrest. Over 200,000 people have been taken prisoner, but we don’t know how many were killed,” Observatory director Rahman told AFP.

Human Rights Watch last week demanded unfettered access to Syrian prisons after a prominent peace activist died in custody and another was feared dead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 01, 2013, on page 8.




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