Fighting continued across Syria, as the Syrian army seized a strategic town east of Damascus, destroying the minaret of Aleppo’s ancient Umayyad mosque in the process, Syrian state media and a watchdog reported, with the regime and the opposition blaming each other.
Activists and fighters said on Wednesday that the army had entered the town of Otaiba, which has been used by rebels as a weapons supply route for the past eight months.
“The disaster has struck, the army entered Otaiba. The regime has managed to turn off the weapons tap,” a fighter from the town told Reuters via Skype.
Rebels said they have pulled out of the town, a gateway to the eastern rural suburbs of Damascus known as al-Ghouta, in the early hours on Wednesday after more than 37 days of fighting in which they accused the government of using chemical weapons against them twice,an allegation the government denied.
“Now all the villages will start falling one after another, the battle in Eastern Ghouta will be a war of attrition,” another fighter in the area said, speaking by Skype.
The heavy gunbattle in Otaiba was just part of the wider devastation caused by the conflict, which began more than two years ago and had already killed more than 70,000 people, and displaced more than a million people.
In Aleppo, rebels have accused the Syrian government of destroying the minaret of the landmark Umayyad Mosque, leaving the once-soaring stone tower built about 1,000 years ago into a pile of rubble, while igniting angry finger-pointing between government and rebels.
A video shot by rebels and uploaded online on Wednesday, showed the collapsed minaret of the 12th Century mosque in the heart of the walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rebels claimed that tanks fired in the direction of the minaret until it was destroyed.
The historic mosque fell into rebel hands earlier this year after heavy fighting. But rebels insisted that snipers were not stationed inside the minaret.
Syrian’s state news agency SANA, however, claimed rebels from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group blew up the Sunni mosque.
While the mosque is controlled by the rebels, the area around it remains contested and Syrian troops are about 200 metres away.
Syria’s civil war poses a grave threat to the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Five of Syria’s six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNESCO, the UN’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.