BEIRUT

Landmark of Syrian city falls during fighting

The 12th-century minaret of a famed mosque that towered over the narrow stone alleyways of Aleppo’s old quarter collapsed Wednesday as rebels and government troops fought pitched battles in the streets around it, depriving the ancient Syrian city of one of its most important landmarks.

President Bashar Assad’s government and the rebels trying to overthrow him traded blame over the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site and centerpiece of Aleppo’s walled Old City.

“This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens. This mosque is a living sanctuary,” said Helga Seeden, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut. “This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I’ve seen in Syria. I’m horrified.”

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a commercial hub, emerged as a key battleground in the nation’s civil war after rebels launched an offensive there last summer.

Since then, the fighting has carved the city into rebel- and regime-held zones, killed thousands of people, forced thousands more to flee their homes and laid waste to entire neighborhoods.

BAGHDAD

Clashes between Sunnis, Shiites stir fears of war

With Sunni gunmen beginning to confront the Shiite-led government’s security forces head-on in northern and western Iraq, fears are growing fast of a return to full-scale sectarian fighting that could plunge the country into a broader battle, merged with the Syrian civil war across the border.

With more than 100 people killed over the past two days, it’s shaping up to be the most pivotal moment for Iraq since U.S. combat troops withdrew in December 2011.

“Everybody has the feeling that Iraq is becoming a new Syria,” Talal Younis, the 55-year-old owner of a currency exchange in the northern city of Mosul, said Wednesday.”We are heading into the unknown. I think that civil war is making a comeback.”

A crackdown by government forces at a protest site in the northern town of Hawija on Tuesday triggered the latest unrest.

It has enraged much of the country’s restive Sunni Arab minority, adding fuel to an already smoldering opposition movement and spawning a wave of bold follow-up clashes.

It is too soon to say whether the rage will lead to widespread insurrection in the largely Sunni cities of Mosul and Ramadi or, more significantly, spiral into open sectarian warfare in the streets of Baghdad.

SEOUL

North Korea warned not to reject joint-factory talks

South Korea is warning of a “grave measure” if North Korea rejects a call for talks on a jointly run factory park that has been shut down for nearly a month.

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk on Thursday refused to describe what Seoul would do if Pyongyang doesn’t respond by a deadline Friday to a demand for formal working-level talks.

But Seoul may be signaling it will pull out its remaining workers from the factory across the border in Kaesong. That could lead to the end of a complex considered the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

Pyongyang suspended operations in early April and withdrew its 53,000 workers.

Pyongyang has recently eased the near daily threats it issued for several weeks. But tensions between the rivals are still high.

MIAMI

Number of hunger strikers increases at Guantanamo

A U.S. military spokesman says the number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay labeled as hunger strikers has been raised to 92, based on evaluations by medical personnel at the U.S. base in Cuba.

The new figure is up by eight from a day earlier and represents more than half of the 166 men held there.

Lt. Col. Samuel House says the military arrived at the new figure Wednesday because doctors have been able to evaluate prisoners more closely after moving them to single cells out of a communal area. That move sparked a brief clash between guards and prisoners on April 13.

Lawyers for prisoners have been saying since the strike began in February that the military was undercounting the men refusing to eat in protest of their confinement. 

– From news service reports