Blast at university in Syria causes casualties

In this citizen journalism image taken on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, people gather around destroyed buildings after airstrikes hit areas in Aleppo, Syria. (Aleppo Media Center AMC)
January 15, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
A large explosion struck the main university in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, causing an unknown number of casualties, activists and Syrian state TV said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blast at Aleppo University, which was in session Tuesday. There were also conflicting reports about which part of the campus was hit.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said 15 people were killed and "tens" wounded in two explosions near the university's dorms, but said it was not clear whether the blasts were the result of shells or bombs.

State TV didn't offer any details about the explosion or specify the number of victims. However, a Syrian government official in Damascus said two rockets hit the university's Information Technology Academy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the two rockets were fired from a rebel-held area in Aleppo.

Syria's largest city and a former commercial hub, Aleppo has been a major front in the country's civil war since July, and the fight between regime troops and rebels there has settled into a bloody stalemate. Government troops and rebels usually exchange rockets and mortar rounds in the city.

Over recent months, Aleppo and the Syrian capital, Damascus, have been hit by a wave of explosions that have killed scores of people. Many of the bombings, which have largely targeted government buildings, have been claimed by Islamic extremists fighting on the rebel side.

Elsewhere in Syria, troops and rebels fought in embattled suburbs of Damascus Tuesday, as government air raids and shelling in the other regions killed several dozen people, activists said.

The violence came a day after Syria's deputy foreign minister said President Bashar Assad will not step down before scheduled presidential elections in mid-2014. Faisal Mekdad said Assad will run again for the post next year - a declaration which lowers already diminished expectations that a political settlement can be reached.

Since Syria's crisis began in March 2011, the opposition has said it will not accept anything less than Assad's departure.

Mekdad's comments appear to contradict a plan proposed by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Since starting his job in the summer, Brahimi has sought to advance an international plan that calls for an open-ended cease-fire between rebels and government troops and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until elections can be held.

Brahimi did not mention Assad by name in the plan, but he has said the transitional government would have "full executive powers," meaning "all the authority of the state should be possessed by that government" - a description that would seem to exclude the incumbent Assad from a role.

Asked by a BBC interviewer if the president says he wants to run in 2014, Mekdad answered, "What's wrong with that?"

"The president and many other candidates who may run will go to the people put their programs and to be elected by the people," Mekdad said in English. "The ballot box will be the place where the future of the leadership of Syria will be decided."

"It is a coup d'etat ... if we listen to what the armed groups and those enemies of Syria are proposing," Mekdad said, referring to the opposition and countries that support it.

Earlier this month, Assad dismissed calls from the U.S. and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of "terrorists" - his government's shorthand for rebels.

Last year, a new constitution drafted in Syria imposed a limit of two seven-year terms on the president, but the limit would not count the nearly 13 years that he has already held office. It means Assad could remain legally in power through 2028.

Assad took office in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.

Mekdad said it would be undemocratic to tell Assad not to run for the post again.

Also Tuesday, Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi arrived in Iran, Syria's strongest ally in the region, where he will discuss the country's crisis, including Assad's proposal to end the fighting, with Iranian officials.

Iran has tried to mediate in the past but the opposition rejected the offer saying Tehran is taking sides in the conflict.

Meanwhile, activists reported clashes in suburbs south of Damascus. The government is trying to drive rebels from their bases around Damascus from which they can threaten key facilities.

Away from Damascus, the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist groups said troops bombarded the Houla region in the central province of Homs, killing at least 10 people including five women and two children. The LCC said 17 people were killed in Homs, most of them in Houla.

The U.N. says at least 60,000 people have been killed in the war and millions have fled their homes.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.


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