ANTAKYA, Turkey – Clashes between troops and rebels flared up Tuesday in the heart of Aleppo’s old city in northern Syria.
The rebels seized the centuries-old Umayyad Mosque, which for months has been used as a military encampment and checkpoint by regime forces, after a day of fighting, Aleppo activists said. The mosque sits near the medieval citadel, the city’s signature landmark and a strategic site high above the surrounding neighborhood, which remains in the hands of the military.
According to Syria’s state media, opposition fighters detonated a bomb near one of the mosque’s walls, causing significant damage. The opposition blamed the damage on a mortar shell fired by troops after the rebels took control of the mosque.
Opposition fighters were seeking to gain control over parts of the old city, a United Nations-recognized World Heritage Site, that they tried but failed to seize last fall. Those earlier clashes left parts of the site destroyed.
The opposition said it controls more than half of Aleppo, and the old city would strengthen its hold.
Meanwhile, south of the city, rebels drew closer to taking over a policy academy in the Khan al-Asal suburb that sits along the road leading to Damascus, activists said. Rebels had besieged the academy for weeks and Tuesday began firing mortars in preparation of storming the compound, an opposition activist known as Abu Hassan said.
The renewed clashes came as Human Rights Watch reported that more than 141 people, half of them children, were killed when the government launched at least four ballistic missiles at Aleppo and its suburbs last week. The death toll is likely to be higher as relatives at the attack sites continued to search for people missing and believed to be buried under the rubble.
The missiles struck residential neighborhoods. A Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher who visited the four sites, which are under opposition control, found no signs of military targets in the vicinity.
“I have visited many attack sites in Syria, but have never seen such destruction,” said the researcher, Ole Solvang. “Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the Syrian government finds ways to escalate its killing tactics.”
Each missile demolished 15 to 20 houses and significantly damaged many more, according to the group.