A series of explosions rocked central Aleppo early Wednesday as a rebel push to target key military sites reached deep into Syria’s largest city. The blasts went off near an officers’ club in the heavily secured Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, the main square in the city, and wreaked heavy destruction. By the afternoon, the death toll from the attack approached 50, while more than 100 people had been injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, an activist group. Most of the casualties were government forces, the group said.
No rebel brigade immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. But the head of Aleppo’s military council, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, said in an interview that he believed the bombings would send a message to the Syrian government that the rebels were pressing ever-closer to striking at its heart. “Right now the point is that we got to them in the middle of the city,” he told The Daily Beast. “A lot of pigs died today.”
Okeidi’s comments mirrored those that have been made by rebel leaders in Damascus in recent months following bombings that have targeted high-profile military sites there. The details and casualty numbers have been murky in these attacks. But as the rebels face a forceful campaign from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to maintain control of Syria’s two most important cities, they have pushed to signal that they’re the ones with the initiative in the fight.
Syrian state television said the blasts had been car bombs, describing them as the work of “terrorists,” a common government description of the rebels. In an anonymous interview with the Associated Press, an official from the Syrian government portrayed the bombings as suicide attacks, a claim the rebels have refuted in the past. In the interview, Okeidi denied that suicide bombers had been involved, saying rebels had staged the bombings with the help of members of the regime’s own security forces.
Rebels and activists said the officers’ club, once used to host weddings and other gatherings for members of the security forces, had lately been used as a military base. They said the building had been leveled by the blasts.
Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, on the outskirts of the Old City, which has seen much of its historic souks go up in flames after rebels announced a new offensive in Aleppo last week, was a picture of devastation on Wednesday.
Samer Kanjo, the managing editor of Aleppo TV, an opposition station covering the city on satellite television, used eyewitness accounts from the area around the square to describe doors blown from residences along a nearby street popular for its shopping and bodies strewn amid the rubble. He said the square had been heavily fortified by the government of late, much like Umayyad Square in central Damascus, the site of military headquarters buildings that were targeted in a bombing last week. “This is not the first explosion in Aleppo,” Kanjo said. “But it’s the first one to take place in the middle of the city—and that is something big.”