BEIRUT -- Fires sparked by clashes between government troops and rebels raged through the medieval marketplace of Aleppo on Saturday, destroying hundreds of shops lining the vaulted passageways where foods, fabrics, perfumes and spices have been sold for centuries, activists said.
Some described the overnight blaze as the worst blow yet to a historic district that helped make the heart of Syria's largest city and commercial hub a UNESCO world heritage site.
The souk, a labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with shops, was once a major tourist attraction, but has been the scene of near-daily firefights and shelling in recent weeks after rebels who fought their way into the city two months ago pushed toward its center. Activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions in the citadel that dominates the city.
Amateur footage posted online by activists showed flames raging through the stone passageways, the wooden doors of shops crackling in the heat as rebels struggled to put out the blaze with a garden hose. Other videos showed a pall of smoke hanging over the city's skyline.
The fire started late Friday amid heavy government shelling, and was still burning Saturday morning, activists said. One, who is based in the city, estimated that the majority of the neighborhood's hundreds of shops were destroyed.
"It's a disaster," said Ahmad al-Halabi, speaking from the site by telephone. "The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops." Syrian authorities had cut the city's water supply, he added, making it more difficult to put out the flames. He said rebels and civilians were working together to control the blaze with a limited number of fire extinguishers.
"It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," he said. "There are narrow, hard to reach streets where the fire is still burning."
The market, stretching over several kilometers around the towering 13th century citadel, once bustled with shoppers and tourists. But after shelling and fighting in the area intensified a month ago, most stands closed. On Saturday, shop owners were scrambling to rescue whatever stocks they had left there in storage.
Once considered a bastion of support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, Aleppo has in the last two months become the focus of the insurgency. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory, with a stronghold in the north near the Turkish border.
Since the rebel offensive began in August, each side has controlled about half of the city and has repeatedly tried - but failed - to capture the rest.
Rebels launched Thursday what they said would be a "decisive battle" to drive Assad's forces out of Aleppo and fighting has since spread to wide swaths of the city.