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Violence in Syria: Could it engulf the region?

As the Syrian city of Aleppo reels from a spate of suicide bombings and mortar fire, concerns are rising that the fighting could draw in Sunni and Shiite powers in the region

By Oliver HolmesReuters, Dominic EvansReuters / October 3, 2012

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians walk past a crater caused by an explosion at the scene where triple bombs exploded at the Saadallah al-Jabri square, in Aleppo city, Syria, Wednesday.

AP/SANA

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Beirut

Three suicide car bombs and a mortar barrage ripped through a government-controlled district of central Aleppo housing a military officers' club on Wednesday, killing 48 people according to activists.

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The coordinated attacks hit just days after rebels launched an offensive against President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria's biggest city, leading to heavy fighting and a fire which gutted a large part of its medieval covered market.

The state news agency SANA said suicide bombers detonated two explosive-laden cars in the main square, Saadallah al-Jabiri, which is lined on its eastern flank by the military club, two hotels and a telecoms office.

The explosions reduced at least one building to a flattened wreck of twisted concrete and metal, and were followed by a volley of mortar bombs into the square and attempted suicide bombings by three rebels carrying explosives, it said.

Another bomb blew up a few hundred metres (yards) away on the edge of the Old City, where rebels have been battling Assad's forces.

State television showed three dead men disguised as soldiers in army fatigues who it said were shot by security forces before they could detonate explosive-packed belts they were wearing. One appeared to have a trigger device strapped to his wrist.

Another pro-Assad station, al-Ikhbariya TV, broadcast footage of four dead men, including one dust-covered body being pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building and loaded onto the back of a pickup truck.

The facades of many buildings overlooking the square were ripped off and a deep crater was gouged in the road. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 48 people were killed, mostly from the security forces, while SANA put the death toll at 31.

Wednesday's attacks in Aleppo followed last week's bombing of the military staff headquarters in Damascus, another strike by Assad's outgunned opponents against bulwarks of his power.

In July, rebels killed four of Assad's senior security officials including Assad's brother-in-law, the defence minister and a general in a Damascus bombing which coincided with a rebel offensive in the capital.

Government forces have since pushed rebel fighers back to the outskirts of Damascus. But they have lost control of swathes of northern Syria as well as several border crossings with Turkey and Iraq and failed to push the fighters out of Aleppo.

A pro-Assad Lebanese paper said on Tuesday that Assad was visiting the city to take a first-hand look at the fighting and had ordered 30,000 more troops into the battle.

Many rich merchants and minority groups in Aleppo, fearful of instability, remained neutral while protests spread through Syria. But rebels from rural Aleppo swept into the city in July and still control districts in the east and south.

Regional conflict

Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed across the country in the 18-month-old uprising, which has grown into a full-scale civil war with sectarian overtones and threatens to draw in regional Sunni Muslim and Shi'ite powers.

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