Dozens of people died in two explosions minutes apart Tuesday at a university in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, a reminder of the Syrian conflict’s costly toll on ordinary citizens.
At least 82 people, many on campus for midterm exams, were killed, according to separate accounts from rebels in Aleppo, government officials and a pro-opposition group.
Videos posted on YouTube show students milling about minutes after the first blast occurred, when a second explosion sent a billowing, mushroom-like cloud into the sky. Students began screaming and running away.
The explosions tore the facades off buildings, blew out windows, set cars ablaze and left bodies scattered across the grounds of Aleppo University, which has managed to stay open despite government-versus-rebel battles for Syria’s second-largest city that had occurred daily since July.
It was not known who was responsible for the blasts. Each side accused the other, seeking to portray itself as on the right side in a conflict that has trapped civilians in the middle and claimed more than 60,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
The opposition said two shells were fired by the Syrian military, probably by fighter jets. The government’s Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, said rockets were fired by “the terrorists,” its term for the rebels.
The London-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 83 people were dead and more than 150 were wounded. The Syrian government said 82 were killed. Opposition activists provided a similar number.
The government and rebels each control about half of Aleppo, with rebels holding the east and the government in control of most of the west, including the university.
Rebel activists and university students speculated that the attack was a plot by the government to shut down a school where protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad have occurred.
But any explanation was possible in a city that has been devastated by fighting between the government and rebels.
Aleppo, like the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, has become a symbol of the destructiveness of the war, which is uprooting people and laying waste to a rich cultural heritage.
Without a diplomatic solution to end the fighting, many worry that Syria will disintegrate.
Students at the university were traumatized. A woman who asked not to be named said she was sitting in class when she heard a loud bang, and then the window shattered and blew in. She saw the shards lacerate one of her classmates.
She said she immediately blamed the government for the attack, saying that friends had seen fighter jets flying. Assad’s forces regularly bombard rebel positions with attack helicopters and MIG jets.
The university suspended midterm exams until Monday.
“This is not the time for exams,” the student said. Even “with all the brutality, no one could imagine [the government] shelling a university.”
The woman, who crosses multiple rebel and government checkpoints to reach school each day, had been determined to pursue her education despite the violence. But now she is rattled.
“This is not the way schools are supposed to be,” she said.
Hassan is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.