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Reports say historic synagogue in embattled Damascus looted


A historic Jewish synagogue in Damascus has been damaged and looted as clashes have consumed the surrounding neighborhood, a Syrian official and an anti-government activist said Monday.

Damage to the synagogue, believed to be hundreds of years old, is the latest example of Syria's rich cultural heritage falling victim to the civil war between the regime of President Bashar Assad and the opposition seeking his ouster.

The synagogue, built in honor of the prophet Elijah, has long been considered an important pilgrimage site.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department of the Syrian Culture Ministry, said objects from the Jobar Synagogue were stolen last year, but that officials haven't been able to visit the building for months because the opposition controls the area.

Opposition forces established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs and last year pushed into Jobar, a neighborhood on the city's northeast corner. Since then, they have been clashing with government troops.

Abdul-Karim said there was no way for the government to protect all of Syria's historical sites because there are thousands of them across the country. He called the looting “a crime” and “a big loss for us.”

“It's the heritage of the homeland regardless of religion, whether it's Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” he told The Associated Press by phone. “It's the Syrian mosaic and the heritage of the people.”

An activist video posted online on March 1 showed a simple metal door on the building with a pile of rubble in front of it. One wall had a hole in it and part of a short wall around the roof was missing. It showed two plaques near the door. One, in English, read: “Shrine and synagogue of prophet and Eliahou Hanabi, 720 B.C.”

A second video posted on March 10 showed the building's door ajar and damage to what appeared to be adjoining buildings, including shattered windows and hole in a ceiling. It was not clear if the synagogue's main sanctuary had been damaged.

The videos appeared authentic and corresponded to other reporting by the AP.

An anti-government activist in Jobar reached via Skype on Monday said the synagogue had been looted continuously during recent months and was damaged by shelling conducted by regime forces.

He said he visited the facility in early March and found damage to adjoining buildings but not to the main sanctuary.

“There had been lots of theft,” he said. “I don't know what was there originally, but we know there were lots of old books and artifacts that are not there anymore,” said the activist, who goes by the name Abu Hassaan al-Damishqi.

Like many opposition fighters, he spoke on condition that he would be identified only by that nickname, by which he is widely known among his comrades, fearing that publication of his real name could endanger his family.

He said local opposition fighters thought government forces had looted the site, although he acknowledged that the looting also could have been the work of thieves taking advantage of a lack of security.

“This is the history of the city, and it doesn't matter if you are a Muslim or not,” he said. “This is the history of our country so we all want to protect it.”

Oil wells set on fire

Heavy shelling in a neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo sent civilians fleeing for their lives on Sunday, and the state news agency accused the opposition trying to topple the government of setting fire to three oil wells.

Syria's civil war has battered the country's infrastructure and torn its social fabric. After more than two years of conflict, neither President Bashar Assad's regime nor the the opposition fighting for his ouster appear close to victory.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said civilians were vacating the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of Aleppo under heavy shelling by government forces. Oppositions took over parts of the neighborhood late last week and were still clashing with Assad's troops who are trying to push them out. The Observatory, which relies on a network of contacts inside Syria, said four people, including two children, were killed in the shelling.

In the east, the state news agency, SANA, said the opposition had set fire to three oil wells in the province of Deir al-Zour, causing a daily loss of 4,670 barrels of oil and 52 cubic meters of natural gas. It accused "terrorists," the government's term for the opposition, of setting the fires after fighting among themselves about how to divide the oil.

Opposition forces battling Assad have seized large areas of territory in Syria's oil-rich east, including a number of oil fields. Although they lack the ability to exploit them, their loss represents a setback to the cash-strapped government they are trying to overthrow.