DAMASCUS: More than 100 civilians have been killed in a new “massacre” in Syria, a watchdog said Thursday, as Russia slammed the United States for blaming deadly blasts at a university campus on the Damascus regime.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths came when the army on Tuesday swept through farmlands north of Homs, where around 1,000 people had sought refuge from fighting ravaging the central city.
“The Syrian regime carried out a new massacre on Tuesday claiming 106 victims, including women and children,” said the Britain-based watchdog which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.
Witnesses said several members of the same family were among those killed, some in fires that raged through their homes and others in cold blood, including 32 clan members shot dead.
Al-Watan newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, reported army advances against “gunmen” - the term used by the regime for insurgents - in the area where the killings reportedly took place.
But militants on the ground quoted by the Observatory denied that rebels were present in the area, which is about five kilometres (three miles) from the Homs city centre.
Homs, dubbed “the capital of the revolution” by the rebels, is the largest and most strategic province in Syria, lying on key trade routes near the borders with Lebanon and Iraq, and with its southwestern areas not far from Damascus.
Troops and rebels have for months been battling to gain dominance in the city and the province, with many areas now under siege by regime forces.
The Observatory urged the UN to send a fact-finding team to probe the bloodshed.
The reported deaths were the latest to emerge from Syria, where twin blasts tore on Tuesday through an Aleppo campus while students were writing exams, killing at least 87 people.
No one claimed responsibility for the Aleppo blasts but the United States blamed government forces for the violence, suggesting they were caused by air strikes on university buildings.
“The United States is appalled and saddened by the Syrian regime’s deadly attack yesterday on the University of Aleppo,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday.
Nuland’s remarks triggered an angry response from Russia.
“I cannot imagine anything more blasphemous,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, describing the killings as a “terrorist act.”
Moscow says the explosions were an act of “revenge” for losses sustained by armed rebels who have been battling the Syrian regime since an uprising against the rule of President Bashar Al Assad erupted in mid-March 2011.
The Observatory said the death toll from Tuesday’s blasts at Aleppo University could top 100 as many of the wounded were critically hurt, which would make it one of the bloodiest attacks of the 22-month conflict.
Rebels in Aleppo told AFP they are trying to break a months-long deadlock in their battle for Syria’s second city by cutting supply routes ahead of simultaneous assaults on regime bases.
“The FSA (the rebel Free Syrian Army) is making new steps to liberate the city,” Hajji Anadan, the non-military chief of the Al-Tawheed Brigade headquartered in Aleppo, said in an interview on Wednesday.
“We are focusing on military areas around Aleppo, the airports and the bases. And, thanks to God, we are surrounding them and step by step we will liberate them.”
The rebels are fighting regime troops at a base defending Aleppo’s international airport, a strategic facility in the southeast of the city.
“The FSA is surrounding the city and is moving on the airports. It is cutting off the routes so the army can’t get supplies or munitions,” he said.
The main city in Syria’s north, Aleppo had around five million residents before the civil war upended their lives in July. Many were forced to flee their homes as vicious fighting erupted and the rebels grabbed eastern districts.
More than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria’s conflict, according to the United Nations, while the Observatory says it has documented more than 48,000 dead.