* Market is part of UNESCO heritage site
* Activists say neither rebels nor army advancing in Aleppo
* More than 40 killed by Saturday afternoon
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Sept 29 Hundreds of shops were burning
in the ancient covered market of the Old City of Aleppo on
Saturday as fighting between rebels and state forces in Syria's
largest city threatened to destroy a UNESCO world heritage site.
The uprising-turned-civil war that is now raging across
Syria has killed more than 30,000 people, according to activist
groups like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But beyond the dramatic human cost, many of Syria's
historic treasures have also fallen victim to an 18-month-old
conflict that has reduced parts of some cities to ruins.
Rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad
announced a new offensive in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub of
2.5 million people, on Thursday, but neither side has appeared
to make significant gains.
In Aleppo, activists speaking via Skype said army snipers
were making it difficult to approach the Souk al-Madina, the
medieval market of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden
facades that was once a major tourist attraction.
Videos uploaded to YouTube showed dark black clouds hanging
over the city skyline.
Activists said the fire might have been started by heavy
shelling and gunfire on Friday and estimated that 700 to 1,000
shops had been destroyed so far. The accounts are difficult to
verify because the government restricts access to foreign media.
Aleppo's Old City is one of several locations in Syria
declared world heritage sites by UNESCO, the United Nations
cultural agency, that are now at risk from the fighting.
UNESCO believes five of Syria's six heritage sites - which
also include the ancient desert city of Palmyra, the Crac des
Chevaliers crusader fortress and parts of old Damascus - have
The British-based Observatory, which has a network of
activists across Syria, said Assad's forces and rebels were
blaming each other for the blaze.
NEITHER SIDE MAKES GAINS
Activists also reported heavy clashes at Bab Antakya, a
stone gateway to Aleppo's old city, which sits on ancient trade
routes and has survived a parade of rulers throughout its
construction between the 12th and 17th century.
Rebels said they had taken control of the gate, but some
activists said the fighting there was continuing and neither
side was truly in control.
"No one is actually making gains here, it is just fighting
and more fighting, and terrified people are fleeing," said an
activist contacted by telephone who declined to be named.
He said bodies were lying in the streets and residents were
not going out to collect them for fear of snipers.
By noon on Saturday, 40 people had been killed in fighting
across Syria, according to the Observatory.
The bloodshed in Syria has escalated since rebels took their
fight to the major cities. Activists reported fresh clashes in
the capital Damascus and surrounding suburbs and said security
forces were torching homes as helicopters buzzed overhead.
The revolt, which began in March 2011 as peaceful protests,
has become an armed insurgency that is now able to hold ground
in Aleppo and rural towns of northern Syria, close to the
Turkish border, but can do little to fend off Assad's air force
Assad has defended the fierce crackdown that spawned the
armed rebellion, arguing that he has been fighting Islamist
militants funded from abroad.
One activist contacted by phone read out text messages that
have been sent to all Syrian mobiles since rebels in Aleppo
announced their new offensive. The text messages called on the
rebels to surrender.
"To those who have implicated themselves against the state:
Those who have offered you money have left you with two options:
You will be killed fighting the state or it will kill you to get
rid of you," one message read.
"The state is more merciful than you. Think and decide. The