DAMASCUS: Twin car bombs killed at least 22 people in the Syrian city of Idlib Wednesday, as universities nationwide held a day of mourning for 87 people who died in explosions at the University of Aleppo the day before.
The bombings in Idlib had the hallmarks of an operation staged by the jihadist Nusra Front, a rebel group with a strong presence on the ground in northwestern Syria that has been blacklisted by the United States as a “terrorist” organization.
“The first explosion took place in Al-Ziraa Square and the second explosion took place in Al-Mutlaq Square, killing 22 civilians and wounding 30,” the state-run SANA news agency said, blaming “terrorists” for the blasts.
The city of Idlib remains under the control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad but most of the rest of the northwestern province on the border with Turkey is in the hands of rebels fighting to oust him.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a higher toll of 24 dead and said most were soldiers. The Britain-based activist group said there were three bombs in all and that many of the wounded were in critical condition.
“After taking the air base at Taftanaz [on Jan. 11], the city of Idlib has become the rebels’ new target,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
The Observatory said the death count from Tuesday’s blasts at Aleppo University could top 100 as many of the wounded were badly hurt. If so, it would be one of the bloodiest attacks of the 22-month-old conflict.
Washington Wednesday condemned the “despicable attack,” blaming regime air attacks. “According to eyewitnesses at the scene, regime planes launched aerial strikes on university facilities,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists.
“We condemn this despicable attack on unarmed civilians and continue to emphasize that those responsible for unlawful killings and other violations of international law will be identified and held accountable.”
Nuland added that the United States extended its “sympathies and condolences ... to all those devastated by this senseless tragedy.”
“The Syrian people have already endured too much loss as a result of the Assad regime’s relentless attacks on its own people.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the explosions, with the government and rebels blaming each other.
Opposition activists said government jets carried out an airstrike, but the army said rebels fired rockets at the campus, which is in a government-controlled area of the northern city.
“The army’s General Command sees in the targeting of academics, colleges and universities further proof of the killers’ dark methods, and of an ideology that belongs in the past,” a military statement said.
Higher Education Minister Mohammed Yahya Moalla called for a nationwide “day of mourning” Wednesday, state television reported. In a letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council, Syria’s Foreign Ministry urged the international community to “denounce the terrorist massacre.”
Alluding to Western support for France’s military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali, the ministry said “some countries in the world are practicing two-faced politics, by supporting terrorism in Syria and denouncing it in others.”
Ban sent his condolences to the families of those killed and said “deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian targets constitutes a war crime.”
He stressed the “urgent need for a peaceful political solution that ends the violence and meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.”
But Syria’s ally Russia, while condemning the blasts in Aleppo, blamed them on “terrorists” it said were seeking revenge for losses in the conflict with government forces.
“We condemn the latest mass killing of innocent people in Syria in the most decisive way,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said, adding that the entire international community should take “a similarly uncompromising position on terrorism.”
“It is clear that this was a ruthless, bloody provocation, revenge by terrorists for significant losses they have sustained in the confrontation with government forces,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
“We particularly note that this terrorist attack took place in an atmosphere in which normal life had begun to gradually return to the majority of the city’s districts,” Zakharova said.
The Observatory said 103 people died in violence nationwide Wednesday, including 44 civilians, one day after local activist networks said the death toll passed 200 people.
For his part, the deputy head of Syria’s main opposition coalition criticized major Western and Arab states Wednesday for not making good on promises to help it isolate Assad after granting the bloc formal recognition.
George Sabra, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, said international pledges of support for his group had proven largely cosmetic and “loose,” allowing the now 22-month-old conflict to rage on inconclusively and thrust the death count past 60,000, according to U.N. figures.
“The promises before the coalition was born were big but we find them two months later limited at all levels ... There is no real political support coming to the coalition to help isolate the regime,” he told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.
“The friends of the Syrian regime are providing it with the tools to kill and the friends of the Syrian people are giving the regime the time it needs ... It’s unacceptable that the regime continues to send death to Syrian cities through its Scud missiles and MiG-23 and MiG-29 warplanes while the world is watching and Syrians are unable to defend their children and homes.
“We directly call for providing the Free Syrian Army with quality weapons, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons systems,” Sabra added.