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A blaze has swept though ancient markets in Aleppo, activists say, as rebels and government forces seek to gain control of Syria’s largest city.

Reports say hundreds of shops in the souk, one of the best preserved in the Middle East, have been destroyed.

Unesco, which recognizes Aleppo’s Old City as a world heritage site, described the damage as a tragedy.

On the third day of a rebel offensive, battles broke out in the Old City and the Arkub district, reports said.

The fire, believed to have been triggered by shelling and gunfire, began on Friday but was still burning on Saturday, reports said.

“It’s a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected,” Kishore Rao, director of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, told the Associated Press.

The market stalls lie beneath the city’s towering 13th Century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.

Activists quoted by Reuters news agency said that the presence of snipers was making it difficult to approach the Souk al-Madina, once a major tourist attraction.

Reports estimate that between 700 and 1,000 shops have been destroyed so far.

“It’s a disaster. The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops,” one activist, Ahmad al-Halabi, told AP.

He said the Syrian authorities had cut off the water supply, making attempts to control the fire more difficult.

Rebels and civilians were working together to limit the fire with a few fire extinguishers, he added.

The fire took hold with speed, fuelled by the many shops’ wooden doors and the clothes, fabrics and leather goods sold inside.

Heavy clashes erupted at several military sites in the city on Saturday evening, Reuters reports.

Fighting was reported at the Neirab military base as well as Bab Antakya, a stone gateway to the Old City.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said the focal point for fighting was Salaheddin, a rebel stronghold on the south-west side of the city.

State television reported attacks on what it called “terrorist centres” in 10 different locations on Saturday, saying heavy losses had been inflicted.

Though both sides have reported clashes in different parts of the city, the signs are that the rebels simply lack the firepower and the manpower to score a significant breakthrough.

“No-one is actually making gains here, it is just fighting and more fighting, and terrified people are fleeing,” one activist told Reuters.

Activists estimate more than 27,000 people have died in the violence since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began last year.

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Forty eight Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus, reports say.

Iranian diplomats blamed the abduction, from close to the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zainab, on “armed groups”.

Syrian state television later gave the same account of the incident.

Meanwhile, fresh fighting has been reported around Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels are trying to secure their positions.

The Iranian consul in Damascus said the whereabouts of the abducted pilgrims was known.

Syrian state-run news agency Sana said the Iranians had been kidnapped by “armed terrorist groups” and that Syrian authorities were “working to handle the situation”.

Thousands of Iranians travel each year to Syria to visit the pilgrimage site in the mostly Shia district of Sayyida Zainab, which has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.

There have been several other reports of groups of Iranian pilgrims being kidnapped in Syria in recent months, with most later being freed.

In May, 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims were abducted in Syria while returning from Iran.

They were released after being held for three days, but the incident sparked violence across Lebanon, where the crisis in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions.

Forty eight Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus

Forty eight Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus

Meanwhile, fresh fighting was reported in Syria’s two biggest cities on Saturday.

Most areas of Aleppo where rebels are entrenched have been bombarded by government forces and clashes have been reported in several districts.

Video footage posted by activists showed a military jet flying over what they said was the rebel-held quarter of Salah al-Din followed by a loud explosion.

Activists reported clashes in several areas too, including around the officers’ club and a political security headquarters.

Government forces seem to now be pushing harder in the crucial battle for Aleppo.

Syrian state television reported that troops had inflicted huge losses on what it called “terrorist mercenaries” in Salah al-Din and in other nearby areas too, our correspondent adds.

There have been skirmishes in which rebels have done rather well, he says, seizing three police stations and retaking a fourth on Friday, and rebels are “incrementally” increasing the size of the area they hold.

The rebels have “remarkable” defence capability in Salah al-Din where government tanks had been trying to enter, but as an area full of narrow twisting lanes, it is perfect for guerrilla warfare, he adds.

However, the full thrust of the armour and the artillery from the regime side has not been seen yet, he adds.

The focus of the fighting is also on the southern edge of Damascus where shelling and gunfire were reported from the Tadamon quarter, despite it having been earlier stormed by government forces.

Shooting and explosions were also being heard in some central parts of the capital, and activists reported clashes too on the western side of the city, in and around Dumar.

Earlier, Russia and China condemned a UN General Assembly resolution passed on Friday which criticized the Security Council for failing to halt the violence in Syria.

Moscow’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters the resolution was one-sided and supported the armed opposition.

Western nations praised the resolution, which passed by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.

It criticizes both the UN’s own Security Council and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its use of violence.

The assembly debated the resolution, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia, shortly after the resignation of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the failure of his six-point peace plan.

Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.


The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages.

It passed a non-binding resolution, which also condemns the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons, by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.

The move came after the resignation of UN envoy Kofi Annan and failure of his six-point peace plan.

Government forces backed by tanks have launched a new assault in Damascus.

The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages

The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages

Shelling also continued on Friday in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.

The resolution passed at the UN expresses “grave concern” at the escalation of violence in Syria and deplores “the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”.

“The first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities,” the resolution said.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the envoy for Saudi Arabia which is the driving force behind the resolution, had urged the Assembly to maintain its moral and humanitarian values by approving the resolution.

Syria’s envoy, Bashar Jaafari, reacted to the passing of the resolution by saying his government still supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.

Accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of having undermined the plan before coming out in support of it, he said: “You cannot be a fireman and an arsonist at the same time.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict in Syria had become a “proxy war” and called on powers to overcome their rivalries in an effort to end the violence.

“The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes,” he said.

Russia and China have blocked attempts in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Damascus.

At least 11 people have died in north-west Syria after a police van carrying prisoners was blown up on the Idlib-Ariha highway, reports say.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, said the police van was attacked by an “armed group” on the Idlib-Ariha highway. An opposition group confirmed the incident but did not say who carried it out.

The news came as the Arab League hears a report by monitors observing implementation of its peace plan.

The league is due to decide whether to extend its mission in the coming days.

The 165-strong mission expired on Thursday with no sign of a halt to the government’s crackdown on protesters.

Analysts say the league is expected to renew the mission for another month.

The reports said Saturday’s attack happened in the Mastoumeh area in Idlib province.

Sana initially said 14 people had died, and 26 prisoners and six police were injured.

An ambulance which came to the aid of victims was also attacked, the agency added.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of dead at 11. It said the van had been hit by several roadside bombs.

No-one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Violence across Syria on Friday resulted in seven people being killed by security forces, opposition groups said.

The UN Security Council was told earlier this month that 400 people had been killed during the monitors’ first 10 days in Syria.

The UN had previously said that more than 5,000 had died since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted last March.

The government in Damascus says that some 2,000 members of the security forces have also been killed combating “armed gangs and terrorists”.

In a separate development, the US says it is considering closing its embassy in Damascus because of increasing safety concerns.

Officials in Washington say they are talking to the Syrian authorities, as well as to the British and Chinese governments, who have embassies nearby. But no final decision had been taken.

The conclusions reached by the Arab League mission’s head, Sudanese Gen Mohammed al-Dabi, had been due to be discussed by a committee of ministers on Saturday, but unconfirmed reports say ministerial talks will not now be held earlier than Sunday.

The panel is chaired by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, whose country has previously suggested sending Arab peacekeepers to Syria.

Damascus has firmly rejected the idea.

It appears that there is no clearly thought out alternative to the monitoring mission, and no appetite – as yet – for a radical change of course.

League officials have already hinted that the most likely outcome will be to renew the mission for another month, possibly doubling the number of observers on the ground.

Last week, the head of the Arab League’s Cairo operations room, Adnan al-Khudeir, said the observers would remain in 17 difference places around Syria until the final decision is made.

Although the mandate of the observer mission came to an end formally on Thursday, the agreement covering it provides for an extension for a second month if both sides agree.

So far there has been no suggestion from Damascus that the monitors should be withdrawn.