Beirut, Lebanon – Explosions in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo struck two targets associated with the military and police early on Friday, Syrian state television reported, as the central city of Homs was reported under siege with sporadic tank fire ripping into contested neighborhoods, pinning down residents in their homes.
State television quoted the Health Ministry as saying 25 people were killed and 175 injured in Aleppo in what seemed to be two car bombings.
One explosion erupted near a military intelligence directorate in Aleppo and the second at a police headquarters, state media reported, saying the blasts were the work of “terrorists.” Aleppo, Syria’s industrial center and most populous city, has been relatively quiet throughout the country’s 11-month-old uprising despite occasional demonstrations in recent weeks.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the scene of running battles between the government of President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Images broadcast from one security compound showed bloodied bodies strewn on the ground outside the shattered buildings. The force of the blast shattered windows, upended vehicles and twisted a black cast iron fence. The blasts left both scenes a jumble of concrete blocks and other wreckage.
Live pictures from one site seemed to indicate that the building had been leveled. A deep hole in the ground several yards across, possibly caused by a booby-trapped vehicle, was filled with water. Bulldozers were already at work clearing the rubble.
Two bombings in Damascus in January and December killed 70 people and the government blamed them on Al Qaeda or its sympathizers.
In Turkey, Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, a spokesman for the Free Syria Army, an opposition group of military defectors, denied involvement in the latest explosions.
He blamed the government itself for carrying out the attacks against what he said were two heavily guarded security compounds that it would have been difficult for civilians to approach.
“This regime is playing a well-known game, seeking to distract the world’s attention from the massacres in Homs,” Captain Wawi said.
The explosions came almost exactly a week after the authorities began what activists have depicted as a major effort to crush dissent, shielded by east-west international divisions which have blocked efforts to marshal global support behind a Western and Arab plan to force President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
Much of the government effort to quash revolt has centered on Homs where medical supplies were reported by residents to be dwindling on Thursday.
“Nobody dares venture into the streets,” said a 65-year-old man named Mohamed, describing in a phone interview the blast of tank shells and the rattle of machine guns as all he heard, even though his home is not close to the worst fighting.
With Homs largely sealed off by the Syrian military, activists relied on cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube to distribute images of the government offensive. The short video clips updated throughout the day showed streets cluttered with rubble from damaged buildings, houses collapsed on their owners and a bloody flow of victims either being treated in makeshift clinics or prepared for burial.
The images, although impossible to verify independently, left the hellish image of a city devoid of people but plagued by random eruptions of fiery, black smoke. They were punctuated with cries like “Bashar is a dog!” or “Bashar is a tyrant!” — all referring to President Assad.
Under such extreme conditions, with bodies believed trapped under the rubble, activist organizations’ estimates of the day’s death toll in Homs ranged from about 50 to more than 100.
Reaching Homs by telephone proved difficult Thursday, although intermittent cellphone service returned in the early evening. Much of the attention was focused on the neighborhood of Baba Amr, home to a fervent contingent of activists, but it was hardly alone.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, put the death toll in Homs at 52, with 20 more dead elsewhere. But it noted that communication with Homs was particularly difficult.
Those people who could be reached described the toll as mounting steadily in tandem with the shelling all day long, the Syrian Observatory said.
Although the Local Coordination Committees put the toll in Homs at 110, with about 20 more elsewhere in Syria, it noted that it could not fully document the deaths “due to the intense shelling.”
Some Homs residents were clearly distraught. A man dressed in a smock who appeared to be a doctor pointed to five small bloody and dusty children lying on a gurney and demanded that the world react. As he grew more animated in his appeal, he thrust one child toward the camera, prompting a burst of wailing.
The statement from the Local Coordinating Committees said that the siege by government forces around Homs had prevented the entry of medicine or food, that heating oil was in short supply and that water, electricity and communications were also often cut.
“I don’t hear any sirens or ambulances, just explosions and gunfire,” said Mohamed, reached by telephone, who added that he had bought a stock of bread last week out of fear that a siege was imminent.
A Syrian doctor from Homs, reached by telephone in Britain, said he had managed to contact colleagues in the city who described the medical supply situation as dire.
Homs is short of antibiotics, bandages, surgical instruments, drugs for anesthesia, oxygen and adrenaline for heart attack victims, said Dr. Hamza, using only his first name because like many Syrians he feared reprisals.
“It is a full siege there, impossible to send any kind of medical aid,” he said. “It’s also impossible for doctors and nurses to move from one hospital to another because of the shelling.”
A report issued by the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders, which said it had been barred from the country, described the government as trying to deny medical treatment to its opponents. “Hospitals must be protected areas, where wounded patients are treated without discrimination,” the report said.
It said major traumas were extremely difficult to treat and described medical workers operating clandestine treatment centers as hampered by basic needs like blood, which could be obtained only through central facilities controlled by the Ministry of Defense.
In the official version of events, the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that two members of the security forces were killed in Homs while eight others killed earlier either there or elsewhere were buried in Damascus and Latakia.
In terms of the violence in Homs, the government news service said, “Armed terrorist groups booby-trapped several buildings, alleys and streets in the city and detonated a number of explosive devices.” It also said the groups tried to barricade streets, burned tires, looted stores and burglarized cars.
Escape from the city was difficult, even for a young active-duty soldier trying to go visit his family elsewhere in Syria. He used side roads to get out. “It was a tough drive,” he said, declining to be identified. “The army was spread out, stationed at different spots along the road.”
The soldier said he stuck to office assignments, but those who were assigned to Homs and refused to fire were usually hauled off to the notorious Tadmor prison outside Damascus for at least three months.
Another Homs resident managed to escape two days ago all the way to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli with his wife and 9-year-old daughter. “I feel like I have a new lease on life after we survived this fierce campaign,” said the man, a restaurant worker who declined to give his name.
In the battered Khaldiyeh neighborhood, the man said, the 16 residents of the building where he lived used to divide up into two inner rooms so that not all of them would be killed if a shell or a rocket hit one room.
The long back route to Lebanon cost $500 instead of the usual $50, and they probably made it only because they had an Alawite driver — from the same religious sect as the president — who could talk his way past the myriad checkpoints run by the security services who are mostly from the Alawite sect, he said.
“The image stuck in my mind from fleeing my hometown is the thugs who were attacking like hungry dogs and the residents who cannot leave their homes,” he said. “They are ready to sacrifice their property, not their souls, but they don’t know where to flee.”