BEIRUT – A bomb struck a car wash Saturday in Aleppo, killing at least five people, a day after government troops opened fire to break up large protests against a violent university raid in Syria’s largest city.
Aleppo, an important economic hub, has largely stayed out of the revolt against President Bashar Assad that erupted nearly 14 months ago, but the raid on Aleppo University that killed four students earlier in the week has swelled the crowds of protesters.
On Friday, thousands marched against the university crackdown in what activists said were the largest protests in the city yet. However, it remained unclear if the regime is losing major ground in Aleppo.
Bomb attacks have become more common in Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, often targeting buildings associated with the security services, as the uprising grows increasingly militarized. However, the rebel Free Syrian Army, one of the largest armed groups, denied reports that it had claimed responsibility for Saturday’s blast.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists inside Syria, said five people were killed in the blast at the car wash.
Aleppo activist Mohammed Saeed said the car wash in the city’s southern Sukari neighborhood was owned by a man who serves in pro-government militias known as the shabiha. He put the death toll at six.
It was impossible to independently verify the casualty toll or other activist claims because Assad’s regime has prevented most media from working freely in the country.
Aleppo has been showing signs of increasing unrest since Thursday’s raid of university dorms in which four students were killed and dozens arrested. On Friday, security forces trying to break up widespread protests shot and killed a 16-year-old.
The U.N. said in late March that more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising started in March 2011. Since then, more have been killed every day, with activists reporting daily death tolls that at times reached several dozen. On Friday, the main day for weekly anti-regime protests, at least 38 people were killed across Syria, the Observatory said.
A truce was meant to take hold April 12, as part of a peace plan for Syria brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan. The deal has helped decrease violence in some areas, and brought 40 U.N. observers to Syria, but fighting has continued.
Annan and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon have largely blamed the regime, which continues to attack opposition strongholds and refuses to withdraw troops from the streets. However, rebels also have kept up bombing and shooting attacks on soldiers and checkpoints.
In more violence Saturday, an explosive planted under an army vehicle in Damascus blew up, damaging nine cars.
The blast shook a downtown neighborhood near a military food cooperative, and left a crater in the street, according to an Associated Press reporter who visited the scene.
In a separate incident, a car bomb killed two people on the outskirts of Damascus, the Observatory said.
In the Damascus district of Kfar Souseh, about 3,500 people chanting anti-regime slogans attended the funeral for five people killed by army gunfire a day earlier, a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The witness said troops fired in the air to disperse the crowd. The Observatory said security forces also used tear gas.
Amateur video from Kfar Souseh showed troops in olive-colored uniforms forming a cordon and marching toward the protesters, some of whom flashed V for victory signs. Later, burning tires sent thick, black smoke into the sky.
World powers remain divided on how to stop Syria’s crisis, though all have endorsed the Annan plan, which envisions political dialogue between Assad and his opponents once the bloodshed stops.
Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, however, said Friday the international envoy believes his peace plan for Syria remains “on track” – a day after the Obama administration offered a far bleaker view, saying the plan might be doomed.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the U.N. observer team is to grow to 65 by Sunday and to 300 by the end of May.