BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered on Monday immediate repairs to a historic mosque in the city of Aleppo, a move likely aimed at containing Muslim outrage after fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces set parts of the mosque on fire over the weekend.
Government troops had been holed up inside the 12th century Umayyad mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in downtown Aleppo for several months before rebels fighting to topple Assad launched a push to liberate it this week.
Activist Mohammad al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the center of the old city of Aleppo.
"It's all blackened now," he said of the mosque, speaking by phone from Aleppo
The mosque, known in Syria as the Jami al Kabir, or the Great Mosque, is one of the oldest and largest in Syria, built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a compound adjacent to Aleppo's medieval citadel.
In the past few weeks, rebels controlled one entrance to the mosque compound while the army controlled the other. It is unclear how exactly the fire and damage occurred amid the intense clashes but the regime and the rebels are now trading accusations over who is responsible for the fire.
Videos posted by activists online show a large fire and black smoke raging inside the mosque on Saturday, and later, its blackened, pockmarked walls. Debris is strewn on the floors where worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpeting.
The videos are consistent with AP's own reporting on 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, referring to the rebels fighting to topple Assad. The government on Monday said it pushed back the rebels from the mosque after the weekend fighting, though activists are giving conflicting reports on who controls it.
In another video, a rebel inside the mosque holds up a torn copy of the Muslim holy book, or Quran, saying: "These are our Qurans, this is our religion, our history."
Rebels and activists had complained earlier that soldiers and pro-government militiamen wrote offensive graffiti on the mosque walls and drank alcohol — banned in Islam — while inside.
The rebel in the video is seen holding up an empty bottle, saying it was alcohol.
The mosque is the latest victim of the violence plaguing Syria. On Sept. 29, a fire caused by the fighting swept through Aleppo's covered market, burning more than 500 shops in the narrow, vaulted passageways.
Some of the country's most significant historical sites have been turned into bases for soldiers and rebels, including historic citadels and Turkish bath houses.
In a possible effort to contain the fallout from the damage at the mosque, Assad on Monday issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013.
"He burns down the country and its heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy it to begin with?" said al-Hassan, the activist.
Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo's Chamber of Tourism, blamed the rebels for targeting Aleppo's monuments and archeological treasures to try to frame the government. He said the losses were impossible to estimate because of the fighting around the area.
He said that despite the fire, the structure of the mosque appears to be intact though one of the entrances of the mosque that leads to the ancient market was burnt, as well as another, in the courtyard.
The platform inside the mosque, or minbar, and the prayer niche were also damaged by the fire, Martini said. He added that the wooden minbar, is identical to the one burnt in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
Martini said valuables were also stolen from the mosque's library, including a transparent box that contained a strand purported to be hair of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as centuries-old handwritten copies of the Quran.
"This could be the most serious damage since the 1830s, when an earthquake damaged the mosque," said Martini, who is specialized in repairing archeological sites and monuments.
The mosque's last renovation began about 20 years ago and was official inaugurated in 2006 when Aleppo was chosen that year as the Capital of Islamic Culture.
Aleppo has been the scene of intense fighting, particularly since rebels launched a new offensive more than two weeks ago to try to dislodge regime troops. The fighting has devastated large areas of the city of 3 million, Syria's former business capital.
Also on Monday, Turkey forced a plane from Armenia bound for Syria to land to search the cargo for weapons. Foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said Turkey granted the plane carrying aid for Aleppo permission to fly over its airspace only on condition it can search its cargo for possible military equipment.
After the search, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the plane would be allowed to continue on to Syria. He said the cargo contained humanitarian aid as stated.
Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara last week. Turkey said the Syrian Air plane was carrying military gear while Russia said that the equipment was spare parts for radar systems.
Syria and Turkey barred each other's aircraft from flying over their territory over the weekend 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 on Monday, and that about 7,000 more were waiting at the Turkish border to get in.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch watchdog said Sunday that over 10,000 Syrians fleeing the violence were stuck on the borders with Iraq and Turkey and called on both neighboring countries to keep their borders "open at all times to people fleeing threats to their lives and other forms of persecution."
A Turkish government official insisted Turkey had not closed its borders to refugees but said stricter controls were slowing down their admission.
The U.N. peace envoy to Syria called on Iran to help achieve a cease-fire in Syria during the upcoming Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which starts next week.
Lakhdar Brahimi's remarks Monday came at the end of his visit to Iran where he met Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a major backer of Syria's Bashar Assad. Brahimi is touring the region for talks on ways to resolve the Syrian crisis.
His appeal for a cease-fire for Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, is unlikely to resonate in Syria where activists say more than 32,000 people have been killed in the past 19 months.
Previous calls for a cease-fire have largely been ignored.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Frank Jordans in Istanbul.