BEIRUT (AP) — The minaret of a landmark 12th century mosque in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday, leaving the once-soaring stone tower a pile of rubble and twisted metal scattered in the tiled courtyard.
President Bashar Assad's regime and anti-government activists traded blame for the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, which occurred in the heart Aleppo's walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was the second time in just over a week that a historic Sunni mosque in Syria has been seriously damaged. Mosques served as a launching pad for anti-government protests in the early days of the country's 2-year-old uprising, and many have been targeted.
Syrian's state news agency SANA said rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group blew it up, while Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib said a Syrian army tank fired a shell that "totally destroyed" the minaret.
The mosque fell into rebel hands earlier this year after heavy fighting that damaged the historic compound. The area around it, however, remains contested. Syrian troops are about 200 meters (yards) away.
An amateur video posted online by the anti-government Aleppo Media Center activist group showed the mosque's archways, charred from earlier fighting, and a pile of rubble where the minaret used to be.
Standing inside the mosque's courtyard, a man who appears to be a rebel fighter says regime forces recently fired seven shells at the minaret but failed to knock it down. He said that on Wednesday the tank rounds struck their target.
"We were standing here today and suddenly shells started hitting the minaret," the man says. "They (the army) then tried to storm the mosque but we pushed them back."
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.
The destruction in Aleppo follows a similar incident in the southern city of Daraa, where the minaret of the historic Omari Mosque was destroyed more than a week ago. The Daraa mosque was built during the Islamic conquest of Syria in the days of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in the seventh century.
In that instance as well, the opposition and regime blamed each other for the damage. SANA also accused Jabhat al-Nusra of positioning cameras around the area to record the event in that case.
Syria's civil war, with the use of everything from small arms to artillery and warplanes, poses a grave threat to the country's rich cultural heritage.
Last year, the medieval market in Aleppo, which is located near the Umayyad Mosque, was gutted by fire sparked by fighting last year.
Both rebels and regime forces have turned some of Syria's significant historic sites into bases, including citadels and Turkish bath houses, while thieves have stolen artifacts from museums.
Five of Syria's six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNESCO, the U.N.'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.
The damage is just part of the wider devastation caused by the country's crisis, which began more than two years ago with largely peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war as the opposition took up arms in the face of a withering government crackdown. The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people, laying waste to cities, towns and villages and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad.
Aleppo, the country's largest city, and Damascus are two of the key fronts in the conflict, which pits the an Assad regime dominated by the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and a rebel movement drawn primarily from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
Aleppo has been carved into rebel- and regime-held zones, while Damascus remains firmly in government hands, although the rebels have established a foothold in the suburbs and hope to use their enclaves there to eventually push into the city itself.
On Wednesday, two mortar rounds slammed into the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, killing at least seven people and wounding dozens, state media and activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shells hit near a municipality building and a school in Jaramana. The Observatory, which relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground, said 10 people were killed and 30 were wounded in the attacks.
Syrian state-run SANA news agency said seven people were killed in the attack.
The differences in the death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
Also Wednesday, Syrian church officials said the whereabouts of two bishops kidnapped in northern Syria remain unknown, a day after telling reporters the priests had been released.
Bishop Tony Yazigi of the Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Church said Tuesday that the bishops, both of whom are based in the northern city of Aleppo, had been released. But later on Tuesday, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in the capital said in a statement on its website that it had not received "any official document indicating the (bishops') release."
Gunmen pulled Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church from their car and killed their driver on Monday while they were traveling outside Aleppo. It was not clear who abducted the priests.
But Bishop Yazigi, who is the brother on one of the abductees, said the gunmen are believed to be Chechen fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful of the myriad of rebel factions fighting in Syria. Yazigi declined to say what made it appear that the Nusra Front was involved.
That account corresponded to one provided by the Observatory, which said foreign fighters had abducted the bishops near a checkpoint outside Aleppo. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said Wednesday that activists in the area where the kidnapping took place say the gunmen were foreign fighters from the Caucuses.
However, the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the kidnapping and blamed Assad's regime.
In Rome, Pope Francis called for the rapid release of the two bishops. In his appeal Tuesday, the pontiff called the abduction "a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian population and its Christian community is living."
There has been a spike in kidnappings in northern Syria, much of which is controlled by the rebels, and around Damascus in recent months. Residents blame criminal groups that have ties to both the regime and the rebels for the abductions of wealthy residents traveling to Syria from neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.