A pair of bombs ripped through a school compound Wednesday in the government-controlled central Syrian city of Homs, killing at least 32 people, most of them children, and wounding scores of others, the state media reported.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the double blasts and reported a higher toll, saying at least 39 people were dead, including 30 children. Other unconfirmed reports indicated that at least 45 were killed, mostly children.
State media said 115 people were injured.
Hanaa Singer, representative in Syria for the United Nations' Children's Fund, labeled the attacks "a despicable act against innocent children," adding, "All parties to the conflict have an obligation to protect civilians and respect the sanctity of schools as safe havens where children's right to education can be fulfilled."
Even amid a punishing conflict that has left tens of thousands dead, there was widespread revulsion over an atrocity that Homs Gov. Talal Barazi denounced as "a terrorist act and a desperate attempt that targeted schoolchildren."
Video broadcast on Syrian television and photographs circulated on the Internet showed the blood-spattered school grounds strewn with backpacks, notebooks and body parts. Distraught parents searched for their children. Others ran from the scene with the wounded in their arms.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on antigovernment rebels. Syrian insurgents have often used car bombings and suicide attacks, especially in Homs, which has long been a focal point of the conflict.
The bombs struck in Homs' Ekremah district, home to many members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The sect's most prominent member in Syria is President Bashar Assad.
Some factions of the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebel movement have vowed to kill Alawites. Many Sunni fundamentalists label Alawites and Shiites as infidels.
Communities in Syria with large populations of the nation's minorities — including Alawites, Christians and Druze — have been targets of insurgent car bombings, mortar shelling and other strikes. Minorities are generally viewed as supporting Assad's secular government against what many view as an Islamist uprising intolerant of minority beliefs.
The initial explosion Wednesday came from a car bombing in front of the New Ekremah school, state media reported. A few minutes later, the official account said, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in front of the nearby Ekremah al-Makhzoumi school.
"The attacks took place at the time when students were leaving school, to inflict maximum casualties," reported the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
The double bombings appeared to be the deadliest in months targeting civilians in government-controlled areas. Each side in the Syrian conflict has repeatedly accused the other of targeting schools, hospitals and civilian neighborhoods.
Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Homs was a relatively prosperous provincial city of more than 1 million where Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians and others lived in some degree of harmony. But three years of withering conflict have sown deep animosity and reduced many neighborhoods to ruins, including much of Homs' historic Old City, where mosques and churches alike have been heavily damaged.
In the last two years, pro-government forces have pushed the mostly Sunni rebels out of most of Homs. Life in some areas has returned to a semblance of normality, despite the presence of soldiers and pro-government militiamen on the streets and at checkpoints. But periodic car bombings and other attacks have highlighted the city's continued vulnerability.
In recent weeks, global attention has focused on the U.S.-led bombing effort against the militant group Islamic State, which has declared a "caliphate" in vast stretches of northern and eastern Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Islamic State grew out of the violent turmoil in Syria, beginning as part of one of the many Islamist rebel factions fighting to oust Assad's government. It later broke away from its Al Qaeda origins and has fought against other rebel factions as well as the Assad government.
The Syrian conflict has left at least 190,000 dead, according to United Nations estimates.