At least 87 people – most of them students – have been reported killed in two explosions at the Aleppo University campus in northern Syria and the death toll is expected to rise.
At the Security Council in New York Bashir Ja’afari, Syria’s UN envoy, said: “A cowardly terrorist act targeted the students of Aleppo University as they sat for their mid-term examinations. This act killed 82 students and wounded 162 other students.”
In a statement on Wednesday the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said: “Medical and local activist sources report that the number of dead is likely to rise to over 90 because there are more than 150 people injured by the explosions, many of them severely.
“These sources also confirm that many of those killed were students and refugees who settled in the university campus.”
The UK-based human rights group said it had not been able to identify the cause of the two explosions, which shook the area between the university residence and the architecture building in the southern part of Aleppo University on Tuesday.
A government-run university, it is Syria’s second-largest higher education institution after Damascus University.
According to the state news agency SANA, the blasts caused casualties both among students taking their first day of exams and civilians who had fled their homes to seek refuge from fighting elsewhere in the city, which is Syria’s second largest.
It said the deaths and destruction were caused by two rockets fired by a ‘terrorist’ group, the common term used to describe the armed opposition.
But rebels said the explosions were caused by government forces.
According to The New York Times, the university’s own press office issued a statement claiming that Syrian Air Force MIG fighter planes had targeted the campus in two missile attacks three minutes apart.
A student named Simon told CNN that he had heard a plane overhead. “Suddenly a loud explosion erupted just 50 metres away, at the gates of the college of architecture,” he said. At least 10 cars were destroyed, killing those inside. Minutes later a second blast exploded, but it caused mostly material damage. While helping to load the injured and dead into trucks, he counted “at least 50 bodies”.
"Aleppo University is known as the university of the revolution. We staged a peaceful protest last week, and this is why were targeted. Our pro-government professors would always threaten us and say 'we swear we will shell this university'," Simon told CNN.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement: “Such heinous attacks are unacceptable and must stop immediately. All combating parties in Syria must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law.
“Deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian targets constitutes a war crime.”
Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said: “It is truly shocking and distressing to see so many young people dedicated to pursuing their education in the midst of strife lose their life to senseless violence.” She called on all those involved in the fighting to respect the right to education.
Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, said it was a “heinous” act and an example of how schools and universities were all too often targeted for attacks as a tactic of war, killing and maiming students and staff, and destroying precious educational infrastructure.
“Whoever is responsible for these attacks must be held accountable for the destruction they have caused,” she said.
Rebels and government forces have been fighting over control of the city since July.
During the past year, the university has been a focal point for clashes between government forces and protestors opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Footage of the aftermath of Tuesday’s explosions posted by Reuters shows widespread damage to university buildings, debris blasted all over the area and numerous cars damaged or on fire.
According to SANA, Minister of Higher Education Mohammad Yahya Mu'ala said al-Assad had ordered that the damaged buildings be rehabilitated as soon as possible to ensure the resumption of education and exams at the university.
However, government forces have previously attacked university facilities and students.
On 3 May, Syrian forces raided student dormitories during anti-government protests, firing teargas and live rounds of ammunition, killing four students, wounding 28 and leaving part of the campus in flames. Around 50 students were arrested.
At the time, local reports said pro-Assad students had earlier attacked 1,500 other students protesting against the regime, using knives. Some students, along with their belongings, were reportedly thrown out of windows.
The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since the uprising against al-Assad began in March 2011.
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