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Blasts hit security headquarters in Syrian city that has stood by Assad; state TV says 25 dead
BEIRUT (AP) ' Two explosions targeted security compounds in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, state media reported, saying 25 people were killed and 175 wounded in a major city that has so far largely stood by President Bashar Assad in the nearly 11-month-old uprising against his rule.
The blasts were the first significant violence in the northern city, Syria's largest. Along with the capital Damascus, Aleppo is Syria's economic center, home to the business community and prosperous merchant classes whose continued backing for Assad has been crucial in propping up his regime. The city has seen only occasional protests.
State TV blamed "terrorists" in the blasts, touting the regime line that armed groups looking to destabilize Syria are behind the uprising. Anti-Assad activists accused the regime of setting off the blasts to discredit the opposition and to overt protests that had been planned in the city on Friday.
Two earlier bombings in Damascus in December and January that killed dozens prompted similar exchanges of accusations. There has been no claim of responsibility for those attacks or Friday's.
Outside the compound of the Military Intelligence Directorate, hit by one of the morning explosions, a weeping corespondent on state-run TV showed graphic footage of at least five corpses, collected in sacks and under blankets by the side of the road.
Debris filled the street and residential buildings appeared to have their windows shattered. But the location did not appear to be closed off, as local residents milled around the site, with few uniformed police around. No emergency vehicles or ambulances were visible in the footage and there was no sign of wounded, as earth-moving equipment was seen clearing the rubble.
The presenter said the blast went off near a park where children were playing and claimed children were also killed. Although it lingered over the adult bodies, the TV footage did not show any child victims.
The second blast went off outside the headquarters of a police force in another part of the city. State television cited the Health Ministry as saying 25 people were killed in the two blasts and 175 were wounded.
Mohammed Abu-Nasr, an Aleppo-based activist, blamed Assad's regime for the explosions, insisting the opposition would not carry out bombings in residential areas.
"Had the opposition wanted to detonate bombs they would not do that in a residential area," Abu-Nasr said. "The opposition and the Free Syrian Army don't kill civilians," he said, referring to the force of army defectors that frequently attacks regime military forces.
Abu-Nasr said the blasts came on a day when activists were planning wide protests in the city after the Friday prayers. "Despite the blasts, were will go out and protest today," he said.
So far, Assad's opponents have had little success in galvanizing support in Aleppo, in part because the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges. The city of around 2 million also has a large population of Kurds, who have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the uprising since Assad's regime began giving them citizenship, which they had long been denied.
The Aleppo blast was the latest in a string of bombings that the regime has sought to blame on the opposition, which denies any role. On Jan. 6, a suicide attack in the capital Damascus killed 26 people. Two weeks earlier, 44 people were killed in a twin suicide bombings that targeted intelligence agency compounds in Damascus.
Assad's crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since the uprising began in March.
In another development Friday, Syrian troops who for the past six days have been bombarding the city of Homs made their first ground move of the campaign to seize one of the city's restive neighborhoods.
Soldiers backed by tanks pushed into the neighborhood of Inshaat. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops were going from house to house detaining people.
"They are punishing the residents," said the Observatory's chief Rami Abdul-Rahman who added that there is lack of food in the area.
Inshaat is adjacent to Baba Amr, a neighborhood that has been under rebel control from months. Many Syrians refer to Baba Amr as the "Misrata of Syria," in reference to Libya's third largest city that was heavily damaged by troops loyal to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in the past week in Homs from relentless shelling and gunfire on several rebellious neighborhoods in the city, an operation activists said aimed to soften up the areas before moving in.
Troops shelled parts of the city with tanks and heavy machine guns through the night until daylight Friday, said Majd Amer, an activist in Khaldiyeh, one of the targeted districts. He said troops nearby appeared to be preparing to move into Khaldiyeh as well.
Mohammed Saleh, a Syria-based activist, said the regime appears to be trying to take over rebel-held areas in Homs and the northwestern restive province of Idlib before Feb. 17, when Assad's ruling Baath party is scheduled to hold its first general conference since 2005.
The conference is expected to move on reforms that Assad has promised in a bid to calm the uprising, but which the opposition has rejected as insincere. During the conference, Baath party leaders are expected to call for national dialogue and announce they will open the way for other political parties to play a bigger role in Syria's politics.
State media also reported this week that a committee in charge of drafting a new constitution that reportedly removed a section that says that the Baath party is the leader of the nation and society, once a key demand by the opposition.
The Syrian opposition says it will not accept anything less than Assad's departure.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue
(This version CORRECTS name of targeted Aleppo compound to Military Intelligence Directorate.)