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Minaret of landmark mosque in Syria destroyed

Syrian rebel fighters in Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque complex

Syrian rebel fighters in Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque complex which had served as a key battleground since last July, with rebels seeking the ouster of Bashar al-Assad's regime laying siege twice but each time only managing to retain control for less than 48 hours. (April 16, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

BEIRUT - The minaret of a famed 12th century Sunni 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 attack against 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 Syrian 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 stand.

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 bring it down. He said that on Wednesday the shells hit their target.

"We were standing here today and suddenly shells started hitting the minaret. They (the army) then tried to storm the mosque but we pushed them back," the man says.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting.

The destruction in Aleppo comes just over a week after the minaret of the historic Omari Mosque in the southern city of Daraa was destroyed. The Daraa mosque was built during the Islamic conquest of Syria in the days of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in the 7th 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.

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