Damaged building in northern Syrian city of Aleppo Sept 28, 2012.
Damaged building in northern Syrian city of Aleppo Sept 28, 2012. Photo by AFP
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AFP
Damaged buildings and streets in the northern city of Aleppo, Sept 28, 2012. Photo by AFP

Raging battles between Syrian government forces and rebels in the historic districts of central Aleppo have started a major fire that threatens to destroy the city's medieval souks, or markets, activists said Saturday.

The labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with shops was once a major tourist attraction, but has been the scene of near-daily firefights and shelling in recent weeks, after rebels who fought their way into the city two months ago pushed toward its center. Some activists described the overnight blaze as the worst blow yet to a district that helped make the heart of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The fire started late Friday amid heavy government shelling and was still burning Saturday morning, activists said. Video posted online showed a pall of smoke hanging over the city.

One Aleppo-based activist, Ahmad al-Halabi, estimated the fire destroyed a majority of the shops in the district. "It's a disaster. The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops," said al-Halabi, speaking from the stricken area by telephone.

He claimed Syrian authorities cut the water supply off the city, making it more difficult to put out the fire. He said rebels and civilians were working together to control the fire with a limited number of fire extinguishers. "It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," he said.

Rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad launched Thursday what they said would be a "decisive battle" to drive his forces out of Aleppo and fighting has since spread to wide swaths of the city.

Since the rebel offensive began in August, each side has controlled about half of the city and has repeatedly tried - but failed - to capture the rest. Aleppo would be a major strategic prize, giving the victor new momentum. The souks (markets), a maze of vaulted passageways with shops that sell everything from foods, fabrics, perfumes, spices and artisan souvenirs, lie beneath Aleppo's towering citadel where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.

Many of the shops have wooden doors, and clothes, fabrics and leather inside helped spread the fire, activists said.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground, said it was not clear how the fire was started but also said a large part of the souks have been destroyed.

The claims could not be independently verified because of limitations on the work of journalists in Syria.