Continued fighting still damaging World Heritage Sites in Syria

The head of the United Nations agency tasked with safeguarding the world's cultural heritage has expressed concerns over reports suggesting that continued fightings between Syrian government forces and rebels in the country's largest city of Aleppo has caused considerable damage to its ancient network of markets. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova was quoted as saying in a press release issued early on Monday that reports about destruction of the historic site in Aleppo was "deeply distressing."

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Destroying Cultural Heritage

Destroying Cultural Heritage in Syria"The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country's millenary history - valued and admired the world over - makes it even more tragic," Bokova said. She urged all sides to respect the cultural importance of the Ancient City and safeguard it from any further damage. Calling on both the Syrian forces and rebels to "spare these monuments to human history," Bokova noted that Syria is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Aleppo's ancient network of markets or souk is known locally as the Souq al-Madina, suffered extensive damage in a fire on Saturday. The blaze reportedly destroyed hundreds of shops as fierce fighting between the Syrian Army and Opposition forces continued throughout the city.

Aleppo is also widely considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is located at the end of the Silk Route, and had featured prominently throughout history as a cultural crossroads. Aleppo's Ancient City, of which the souk is a part, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.

Fights in Syria

The ongoing Syrian conflict has taken a heavy toll on Aleppo's cultural and historic heritage as government forces and rebels have intensified their efforts aimed at capturing the control of the city. Although rebels currently control close to 90 percent of Aleppo's Ancient City, they are struggling under heavy artillery fire from the Syrian Army.

Fierce fighting is raging in Syria between government forces and armed rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. More than 18,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since the revolt began in March 2011. The conflict is now viewed as a civil war by most of the international community.

In addition to those trapped inside Syria, the conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. The conflict is now threatening to spill over to neighboring nations and is increasingly becoming sectarian in nature.

Continued efforts by the international community to find a solution to the crisis have been hampered by a deep divide in the U.N. Security Council, with Russia and China backing the Assad regime and the West opposing it.

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