BEIRUT: Two explosions tore through one of Syria’s biggest universities on the first day of student exams Tuesday, killing more than 80 people and wounding dozens, according to the government and an activist group.
Each side in the 22-month-old conflict blamed the other for the blasts at the University of Aleppo, located in a government-held area of Syria’s most populous city.
Some activists in Aleppo said a government attack caused the explosions, while state television accused “terrorists” – a term it uses to describe the rebels – of firing two rockets at the school. A rebel fighter said the blasts appeared to have been caused by “ground-to-ground” missiles.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime activist group, said 83 people were killed and dozens wounded, but it could not identify the source of the blasts.
“Dozens are in critical condition,” the Observatory said in a statement, citing doctors and students.
State television showed a body lying on the street and several cars burning. One of the university buildings was damaged.
Video footage showed students carrying books out of the university after one of the explosions, walking quickly away from rising smoke. The camera then shakes to the sound of another explosion and people begin to run.
“A cowardly terrorist act targeted the students of Aleppo University as they sat for their mid-term examinations,” Syria’s United Nations ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told the U.N. Security Council in New York.
He said 82 students had died and 162 more were wounded. If confirmed, the regime’s report of a rocket attack would suggest rebels in the area had been able to obtain and deploy more powerful weapons than before. The nearest rebel-controlled area, Bustan al-Qasr, is nearly 2 km from the university.
Activists rejected the suggestion that insurgents were behind the attack, however, and instead blamed the government.
“The warplanes of this criminal regime do not respect a mosque, a church or a university,” said a student who gave his name as Abu Taym.
The rebels have been trying to take Aleppo since the summer, but have been unable to uproot Assad’s better-armed and more organized forces.
After the blasts, Russia said it had suspended operations at its consulate in Aleppo and advised anyone with consular issues to contact the relevant section of the Russian Embassy in the capital, Damascus.
Elsewhere, an artillery attack in the central province of Homs killed at least 10 people, according to the Observatory, which added that warplanes launched airstrikes on multiple rebel bastions across Syria.
The Observatory said five women were among those killed in the shelling of Houla in Homs province.
“ Houla sees daily shelling and daily fighting,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of activists, described the killings in Houla as a “massacre” and added that dozens more were wounded in the shelling.
In northern Syria, an air raid in the early hours on the rebel-held town of Al-Bab killed at least eight people, half of them women, said the Observatory.
Air raids struck the rebel-held districts of Jobar and Sultanieh in Homs city, several of whose districts have been under a suffocating army siege for more than six months, the Observatory said.
“They have launched an assault on districts under siege,” an anti-regime activist in the besieged Old City neighborhood of Homs city, who identified himself as Abu Bilal, told AFP via the Internet. “The army is trying to take back Homs.”
The violence came one day after 57 countries asked the U.N. Security Council to refer the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a move that Russia’s Foreign Ministry called “ill-timed and counterproductive.”
Russia, which like China and the United States is not an ICC member, said the referral would not help end the war.
“We believe this initiative is ill-timed and counterproductive to resolving the main task at this moment: an immediate end to the bloodshed in Syria,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said Monday that the Security Council would discuss the Syria crisis before the end of the month, in a meeting that would likely gather deputy ministers.
Bogdanov also indicated that the U.N. was looking at ways of sending a new observer mission to Syria.
“It seems as if the need will emerge to send a solid team of international observers there. I think several options are being discussed,” he said.