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.
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 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.