BEIRUT A fire sparked by battles between Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops and rebel fighters tore through Aleppo's centuries-old covered market Saturday, burning wooden doors and scorching stone stalls and vaulted passageways. The souk is one of a half-dozen renowned cultural sites in the country that have become collateral damage in the civil war.
The damage to one of the best-preserved old souks in the Middle East was the worst yet to a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria. Across the country, looters have broken into a historic castle, stolen artifacts from museums and damaged ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra, antiquities officials and Syrian experts say.
The Aleppo market, a major tourist attraction with its narrow stone alleys and stores selling perfume, fabrics and spices, had been the site of occasional gun battles and shelling for weeks. But amateur video posted Saturday showed wall-to-wall flames engulfing wooden doors as burning debris fell away from the storefronts. Activists said hundreds of shops were affected.
"It's a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected," Kishore Rao, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris.
Most of the other sites recognized as heritage sites by UNESCO, the global cultural agency, are also believed to have suffered damage during the 18-month battle to oust Assad, Rao said. The ancient center of Aleppo Syria's largest city has been hit the hardest, he said.
"It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," said Ahmad al-Halabi, a local activist speaking by phone from the area. He said rebels and civilians were trying to control the blaze, but only had a few fire extinguishers.
The fire in the souk erupted late Friday and was still burning Saturday, following fierce fighting between regime troops and rebels trying to drive pro-Assad fighters out of the city of 3 million.
On Thursday, rebels launched what they said would be a "decisive battle" for the city, followed by days of heavy fighting, including shelling and street combat. Amateur video has shown rebels taking cover behind walls and makeshift barriers, attacking regime forces with grenades and assault rifles. Activists reported heavy shelling by pro-Assad troops.
Once considered a bastion of support for Assad, Aleppo has become the focus of the insurgency for the last two months, with rebels taking about half the city. Aleppo would be a major strategic prize: A rebel victory would give Syria's opposition a major stronghold near the Turrkish border, while a regime victory would give Assad some breathing space.
It's not clear what set off the fire in the old market, made of hundreds of stone stalls that line covered alleys with vaulted ceilings. Amateur footage posted online by activists showed flames engulfing the shops and rebels aiming a water hose at the fire. The shops' wooden doors, along with the clothes, fabrics and inside some of the businesses, helped fuel the blaze, activists said.
The market stalls lie beneath the city's towering 13th century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 30,000 people, according to activists. It has also wreaked widespread destruction, particularly in recent weeks as regime forces stepped up air strikes and shelling attacks, and rebels fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Entire neighborhoods in Syria's three largest cities Aleppo, the capital Damascus and Homs have been devastated.
A majority of Syria's 23 million people live in a thin western sliver of the country; in this territory, rebels have established positions in rural areas, while Assad's forces are trying to hold on to the cities.