At least two deadly explosions, possibly caused by aircraft missiles or bombs, devastated the campus of Aleppo University in Syria on Tuesday as students were taking exams, a major escalation of the violent struggle for control of the country's largest city. The opposition and government blamed each other for the blasts, among the worst since the Syrian conflict began nearly two years ago.
Syria's United Nations ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said at a Security Council meeting that 82 people were killed and 192 wounded in the explosions, which he called a terrorist attack, the Syrian government's blanket terminology for the armed insurgency against President Bashar Assad. Opposition sympathizers said more than 50 people were killed.
The university's own press office issued a statement accusing Syrian air force MiG fighter planes of targeting the campus in two missile attacks three minutes apart, destroying buildings and causing "massive destruction in the surrounding roads." The statement denounced the attacks as a "criminal act."
It was unclear if the press office statement reflected the view of the leadership of the university, which is in a government-controlled part of the city.
Aleppo, in northern Syria, has essentially been under siege since July, with insurgents and government forces in a stalemate. Once the commercial center of Syria, Aleppo has been struck by numerous shellings, bombings and airstrikes. But the university has been conducting classes and trying to provide some appearance of normalcy despite the mayhem and deprivation that have ravaged other parts of the city, and the campus area had been largely spared until Tuesday.
Activists also reported that violence convulsed some suburbs of Damascus, the capital, where insurgent Free Syrian Army members were engaged in combat with government forces in the Ain Tarma and Zamalka neighborhoods. The fighting erupted after a campaign of Syrian air force attacks over the past few days apparently aimed at expunging insurgents from strategic areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-government group based in Britain with a network of contacts in Syria, reported 52 people were killed and dozens injured in the explosions at Aleppo University, while Syria's state-run SANA news service did not specify the number of casualties but said the explosions came on the first day of exams. SANA attributed the death and destruction to at least two rockets fired by an unspecified "terrorist group."
Witness accounts and videos uploaded on the Internet from the campus and nearby hospital painted a picture of utter panic as the explosions shattered examination day with billowing smoke, fire and showers of fragmented concrete and glass.
"I was inside my car when I heard the sound of two consecutive explosions, which was preceded by the sound of a warplane," said an anti-government activist in Aleppo reached on his mobile phone, who identified himself only by his first name, Tony, for security reasons. "There was a mess on the street created by the traffic. I saw smoke coming from dormitories. It was surprising to see the university being bombed."
The United Nations has estimated that more than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Mr. Assad appeared to further distance himself Monday from any thought of relinquishing power, through a BBC interview with his deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad. Mr. Muqdad suggested that Mr. Assad would run for re-election next year when his term expires. "We are opening the way for democracy, or deeper democracy," he said. "In a democracy you don't tell somebody not to run."
Groups opposed to Mr. Assad have said they will not even consider political dialogue to resolve the conflict unless Mr. Assad resigns or is removed from power first. The special peace envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, has urged Mr. Assad to step down and said he cannot be part of any transitional government. The Syrian government has accused Mr. Brahimi of bias toward the insurgency.