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Minaret of landmark mosque in Syria destroyed

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 5:04pm  ET

This March 6, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows the minaret of a famed 12th century Umayyad mosque before it was destroyed by the shelling, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. The minaret of a famed 12th century Sunni mosque in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday, April 24, 2013. President Bashar Assad's regime and anti-government activists traded blame for the attack against the Umayyad mosque, which occurred in the heart Aleppo's walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.(AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

BARBARA SURK
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- The minaret of a landmark 12th century mosque in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday, leaving the once-soaring stone tower a pile of rubble and twisted metal scattered in the tiled courtyard.

President Bashar Assad's regime and anti-government activists traded blame for the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, which occurred in the heart Aleppo's walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was the second time in just over a week that a historic Sunni mosque in Syria has been seriously damaged. Mosques served as a launching pad for anti-government protests in the early days of the country's 2-year-old uprising, and many have been targeted.

Syrian's state news agency SANA said rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group blew it up, while Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib said a Syrian army tank fired a shell that "totally destroyed" the minaret.

The mosque fell into rebel hands earlier this year after heavy fighting that damaged the historic compound. The area around it, however, remains contested. Syrian troops are about 200 meters (yards) away.

An amateur video posted online by the anti-government Aleppo Media Center activist group showed the mosque's archways, charred from earlier fighting, and a pile of rubble where the minaret used to be.

Standing inside the mosque's courtyard, a man who appears to be a rebel fighter says regime forces recently fired seven shells at the minaret but failed to knock it down. He said that on Wednesday the tank rounds struck their target.

"We were standing here today and suddenly shells started hitting the minaret," the man says. "They (the army) then tried to storm the mosque but we pushed them back."

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

The destruction in Aleppo follows a similar incident in the southern city of Daraa, where the minaret of the historic Omari Mosque was destroyed more than a week ago. The Daraa mosque was built during the Islamic conquest of Syria in the days of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in the seventh century.

In that instance as well, the opposition and regime blamed each other for the damage. SANA also accused Jabhat al-Nusra of positioning cameras around the area to record the event in that case.

Syria's civil war, with the use of everything from small arms to artillery and warplanes, poses a grave threat to the country's rich cultural heritage.

Last year, the medieval market in Aleppo, which is located near the Umayyad Mosque, was gutted by fire sparked by fighting last year.

Both rebels and regime forces have turned some of Syria's significant historic sites into bases, including citadels and Turkish bath houses, while thieves have stolen artifacts from museums.

Five of Syria's six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency. Looters have broken into one of the world's best-preserved Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, and ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra have been damaged.

The damage is just part of the wider devastation caused by the country's crisis, which began more than two years ago with largely peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war as the opposition took up arms in the face of a withering government crackdown. The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people, laying waste to cities, towns and villages and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad.

Aleppo, the country's largest city, and Damascus are two of the key fronts in the conflict, which pits the an Assad regime dominated by the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and a rebel movement drawn primarily from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

Aleppo has been carved into rebel- and regime-held zones, while Damascus remains firmly in government hands, although the rebels have established a foothold in the suburbs and hope to use their enclaves there to eventually push into the city itself.

On Wednesday, two mortar rounds slammed into the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, killing at least seven people and wounding dozens, state media and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shells hit near a municipality building and a school in Jaramana. The Observatory, which relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground, said 10 people were killed and 30 were wounded in the attacks.

Syrian state-run SANA news agency said seven people were killed in the attack.

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