By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian security forces and students armed with knives stormed a protest march at Aleppo University early on Thursday, activists said, killing four and rounding up 200 demonstrators demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down.
The pre-dawn raid was an unusually bloody incident for Aleppo, Syria's normally fairly peaceful commercial hub, and marked one of many breaches of a three-week-old United Nations truce between state forces and rebels.
Nevertheless, the head of an international monitoring mission said the team of U.N. observers in the country was having a calming effect.
But a Reuters team in the opposition centre of Homs said they could hear continuous gunfire and the occasional sound of shelling, despite a permanent presence of monitors there.
Video posted on the Internet showed students chanting against four decades of Assad family rule but being drowned out by gunfire. Activists posted images of a dead student, his shirt drenched in blood, and what they said was a burning dormitory.
Small solidarity protests broke out in other universities across Syria, videos uploaded by activists showed.
A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 28 other students were wounded overnight, three critically.
Knife-wielding youths attacked fellow students marching from their dormitories, the group said, followed by a security force raid on the latest march of a growing student protest movement.
"Freedom forever in spite of you, Assad!" chanted the young demonstrators in a video shot in the morning twilight.
There was no comment from officials and it was not possible to verify the account from the northern city, whose relatively prosperous, business-oriented population has been reluctant to join the 14-month-old revolt against Assad.
Many members of Syria's middle classes and religious minorities are wary of the uprising dominated by majority Sunni Muslims against Assad and the elite around him, drawn largely from his Alawite minority. They fear it could descend into the kind of sectarian and ethnic bloodbath they have watched destroy neighboring Iraq over recent years.
ANOTHER TRUCE BREACH
From Aleppo, anti-Assad activists uploaded video of a burning residence block, its windows shattered. Dormitory hallways appeared to have been smashed up and men were dragging furniture outside as students screamed.
Other videos showed crowds of students leaving the campus with suitcases and bundles of clothes. Activists say busloads of security forces had taken over the dormitories, which were where students usually began the protests. Student activists said they had been ordered to move out by Thursday afternoon.
The truce brokered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has led to a small reduction in the daily carnage, mostly in cities were monitors are deployed permanently.
The head of the monitoring mission, Major General Robert Mood from Norway, told reporters during a trip to Hama on Thursday that observers were having a "calming effect" and that state forces appeared willing to cooperate with the truce.
"There have been steps taken by the government forces on the ground that indicate a better willingness to live up to the commitments made in the agreement," he said, giving no details.
Still, the Reuters team could hear mortars exploding in the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs at a rate of one a minute. They also reported the sound of heavy gunfire but did not know where it was coming from.
Explosions rocked the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya area in Idlib and at least one woman was killed by security force fire, the Observatory said. Security forces followed up by raiding the area and arresting several men.
Clashes between rebels and the army also flared in Palmyra, a city that houses historic Roman ruins in central Syria.
Mood, speaking in Homs later on Thursday, said that observer mission was growing as a steady pace, with a total of 50 monitors in the country which would be doubled within weeks.
"We have reinforced our permanent teams in Hama and Deraa with an extra two monitors in each city," he said from the al-Safir hotel in Homs, where six monitors are based permanently.
Around 300 monitors will be deployed by the end of May.
"THEY HAVE TO SHOOT US ALL"
While the city of Aleppo itself has rarely seen clashes, it has not been free of assassinations, apparently by rebels. The Observatory reported the killing overnight of Ismail Haidar, son of the head of a pro-Assad political party.
Syria's news agency said another state figure, national basketball team player Bassel al-Raya, succumbed to his wounds on Thursday after being attacked by unidentified gunmen a week earlier.
At Aleppo University, activists said small protests continued to break out sporadically on the campus. "Our anger will breed more hope. If we have to go to the streets, we will," said a student activist called Mustafa. "They can't stop the students, even if they have to shoot us all."
While most opposition areas in Syria have been overtaken by an armed revolt, peaceful anti-Assad protests had continued almost daily at the university in Aleppo.
It is hard to assess if those protests reflect widespread sentiment among the younger generation native to the city or whether students living there who come from rebellious hotspots like Idlib and Deraa might be taking a lead in Aleppo.
Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrations inspired by a wave of Arab revolts against long-ruling autocratic leaders, but it has become increasingly militarized in response to Assad's violent crackdown.
The UN says more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown, while the Syrian government says it has lost at least 2,600 of its forces to "foreign-backed terrorists".
Despite the turmoil, Syria plans to hold a parliamentary election on Monday under a new constitution which has allowed the creation of new political parities and formally ended decades of monopoly by Assad's ruling Baath Party.
Authorities say the election is part of a reform process, but the opposition dismisses it as a sham.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Homs)