BEIRUT – A landmark mosque in Aleppo was burned, scarred by bullets and trashed — the latest casualty of Syria's civil war — and President Bashar Assad on Monday ordered immediate repairs to try to stem Muslim outrage at the desecration of the 12th century site.
The Umayyad Mosque suffered extensive damage, as has the nearby medieval covered market, or souk, which was gutted by a fire that was sparked by fighting two weeks ago. The market and the mosque are centerpieces of Aleppo's walled Old City, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Government troops had been holed up in the mosque for months before rebels launched a push this week to drive them out. Activists and Syrian government officials blamed each other for the weekend fire at the mosque.
Rebel supporters also alleged that regime forces defaced the shrine with offensive graffiti and drank alcohol inside, charges bound to further raise religious tensions in Syria. Many of the rebels are Sunni Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
"It's all blackened now," activist Mohammad al-Hassan said of the site, also known as the Great Mosque. One of Syria's oldest and largest shrines, it was built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a compound adjacent to the ancient citadel.
Al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the Old City and he blamed Assad for the destruction.
"He burns down the country and its heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy it to begin with?" al-Hassan said in a telephone interview from Aleppo.
Fighting has destroyed large parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city with 3 million residents and its former business capital. Activists say more than 33,000 people have died in the conflict, which began in March 2011 and has turned into a civil war.
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.
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.
Karim Hendili, a Paris-based UNESCO expert who oversees heritage sites in the Arab world, said Aleppo's Old City has been hardest hit. The fire that swept through the souk burned more than 500 shops in the narrow, vaulted passageways, destroying a testament to its flourishing commercial history.
"After the loss of the souk, there is now major damage of the mosque," Hendili said.
The "soul of the city" is really being damaged, he added, "and this is difficult to repair."
Video posted online by activists show a large fire and black smoke raging in the mosque Saturday, and there also are shots of its blackened, pockmarked walls. Debris is strewn on the floors where worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpets.
The videos are consistent with AP's reporting of the incident.
"Assad's thugs set the mosque on fire as a punishment for being defeated by the Free Syrian Army," the caption on one video read.
In another video, a rebel inside the mosque holds up a torn copy of the Muslim holy book, saying: "These are our Qurans. This is our religion, our history."
The rebel in the video also held up an empty bottle, saying it had contained alcohol.
The Syrian government said it pushed back rebels out of the mosque after the weekend fighting, although activists gave conflicting reports on who controls it.
Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo's Chamber of Tourism, blamed rebels for targeting the city's monuments and archaeological treasures. He said the losses were impossible to estimate because of the fighting in the area, but added it could be the most serious damage since an earthquake in 1830s struck the mosque.
Despite the fire, the structure of the mosque appeared to be intact, although a gate that leads to the ancient market was burned, said Martini, who is specialized in repairing archaeological sites and monuments.
The platform inside the mosque, or minbar, and the prayer niche also were damaged by the fire, Martini said. The wooden minbar is identical to the one burned in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, he said.
Valuables were stolen from the mosque's library, Martin said, including a transparent box purported to contain a strand of hair from the Prophet Muhammad, along with centuries-old handwritten copies of the Quran.
Assad issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013, although it's not clear what such a body could do amid a raging civil war. The mosque's last renovations began about 20 years ago and were completed in 2006.
In other developments Monday:
— The Syria military denied reports by a human rights group that it has been dropping cluster bombs — indiscriminate scattershot munitions — during fighting. The denial came in a statement carried by the state-run SANA news agency.
Allegations that cluster bombs were used are "baseless and are part of media propaganda that aims to divert international public opinion from crimes committed by armed terrorist groups," the statement said.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch on Sunday cited amateur video and testimony from the front lines in making the allegation that Assad's government has been using the bombs that are banned by most nations in what the group said was a new sign of desperation and disregard for its own people.
— The European Union stepped up pressure on Assad's regime, banning Syrian Arab Airlines from EU airports.
At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers added 28 people to those whose assets are frozen and who are denied EU visas. They also froze the assets of two more companies, including the airline.
— The U.N. envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Baghdad for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials on the neighboring country's civil war. Brahimi is touring the region to try to resolve the Syrian crisis.
— Turkey forced a Syrian-bound plane from Armenia to land in order to search the cargo for weapons. The plane, which was carrying aid for Aleppo, was granted permission to fly in Syrian airspace on condition that it could be searched for military equipment, said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal.
After the search, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the cargo contained humanitarian aid and was allowed to continue to Syria.
Last week, Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara on suspicion it carried military gear. Russia, which has backed Assad, said the equipment was spare parts for radar systems.
Over the weekend, Syria and Turkey barred each other's commercial aircraft from flying over their respective territories. The bans came after a week of exchanging fire across their volatile border.
— The Turkish government said the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey surpassed the 100,000 mark and that about 7,000 more were waiting at the border to get in.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Frank Jordans in Istanbul contributed to this report.