Fighters seize historic Aleppo mosque

Updated 02 March 2013
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Fighters seize historic Aleppo mosque

BEIRUT: Fighters seized control of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Syria’s second city of Aleppo yesterday after several days of fierce clashes that damaged the building, a watchdog reported.
State news agency SANA, meanwhile, said a car bomb exploded in a regime-held suburb of the central city of Homs, killing a number of people and wounding others.
In Aleppo, regime troops were forced to withdraw from the mosque at dawn, taking up positions in buildings around the landmark structure, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The mosque’s museum caught fire during the battle, causing its ceiling to collapse, adding to damage done in October when one of its intricately sculpted colonnades was charred in clashes.
Aleppo’s director of Islamic endowments said the mosque’s library, which contains “valuable Islamic relics and Qur'anic manuscripts dating back to pre-Mamluk times,” had been ransacked and destroyed.
“Armed terrorist groups have looted and completely destroyed the Islamic library, which is one of the most valuable in the region with an estimated value of hundreds of thousands of Syrian pounds,” Abdel Qader Al-Shihabi told AFP.
The site has been a place of worship since the 8th century, but the original building was razed by the Mongols in the 13th century, from when the current structure dates.
Elsewhere in Aleppo’s UNESCO-listed Old City, fighting raged around the Justice Palace.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said that if the fighters gain control of the palace, they would be able to cut off army reinforcements to Aleppo’s regime-held citadel.
While fighters have taken over large swathes of territory and a number of key military garrisons in Aleppo province, fighting in the city has been at stalemate for months.
Further north yesterday, airstrikes targeted fighter positions around Menegh military airbase, which has been under protracted siege as the opposition battles for control of Aleppo’s major airports.
Warplanes also carried out several raids in the northern province of Raqa.
And fierce clashes erupted in Damascus on the outskirts of opposition-held Jobar district in the east and near the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk in the south, said the Observatory.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s interior minister said yesterday that refugees who have fled from the war in neighboring Syria have become a threat to Lebanon’s security because of the suspicion that many are in fact fighters.
Residents in northern Lebanon say that fighters pose as refugees to cross the border, and are arming members of the refugee community in Lebanon to fight in Syria. The minister, Marwan Charbel, has said Syrian fighters have set up training camps in Lebanon.
In addition, members of the Free Syrian Army have used Lebanon’s mountainous terrain to regroup before staging attacks on the Syrian Army across the poorly demarcated border.
“What is concerning me is the security situation,” Charbel said at a joint news conference with the United Nations Development Programme. “Who is exploiting (the Syrian refugees)? Who is arming them? We are not controlling them.”


Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

Updated 4 min 36 sec ago
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Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

  • Hazza Al-Mansoori 'living a dream' as he and backup astronaut train for space mission in September
  • Soyuz-MS 15 launch could be the beginning of a bold new era of Arab exploration of space

DUBAI: More than 30 years after an Arab first journeyed into space, an  Emirati is preparing to become the latest Arab space traveler when he joins a team of astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

For months, Hazza Al-Mansoori and backup pilot Sultan Al-Neyadi have been undergoing intensive training in Russia, Germany and the US to prepare for the mission. The first Emirati to travel into space will make the historic journey on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25.

During the eight-day mission, he will conduct a tour of the ISS for Arabic viewers on Earth and carry out 15 experiments for the Science in Space schools competition conducted by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.

The crew, who will include an American and a Russian, are allowed to take up to 1 kg of personal items with them on the mission.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” Al-Mansoori said. There will also be an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father, meeting American astronauts in 1976.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

Al-Mansoori will join an elite space club comprising Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman and Syria’s Muhammed Faris. Prince Sultan became the first Arab to travel to space as part of space shuttle Discovery’s crew
in 1985. Faris was a crew member of USSR’s Soyuz spacecraft in 1987.

The Emirati astronaut is aware that history is resting on his shoulders. Speaking to the media recently during his training program in Houston, Al-Mansoori  said it is a huge personal honor to be the first Emirati chosen for space exploration.

“I’m excited about the whole mission, but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the ISS, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board,” he said.

Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program includes familiarization with NASA equipment on board the space station, and handling emergency situations, such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurization.

The Emiratis have been trained to fend for themselves if the return goes off course and they land in the wilderness of Russia.

Speaking of the Soyuz-MS 15 mission, Yousuf Al-Shaibani, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said: “We strive to see the UAE Astronaut Program achieve its objective of preparing generations of Emiratis who will contribute to enhancing the country’s position in space science and research to serve the ambitious aspirations aimed at building a national knowledge-based economy.”

The September launch could prove to be the beginning of a bold new era for Arabs and space. Al-Neyadi, the backup pilot, has been promised a seat on a future mission, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are drawing up ambitious plans for the development of the region’s space industry.