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Moscow suspends consular operations in Aleppo

By Tom Watkins and Ashley Fantz, CNN
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At least 99 people are killed in Aleppo, 82 of them at a university
  • Senior officers captured by rebels plead for freedom in a video
  • A video of shelling and death is posted to the Web
  • France: Al-Assad should face a penalty at the International Criminal Court

(CNN) -- The Russian Consulate General in Syria's largest city has suspended operations, according to Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

"The operations of the Russian Federation's Consulate General in Aleppo have been suspended," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, the news agency reported. "Regarding all issues, contact the consular department of the Russian Embassy in Damascus."

Russia has refused to support U.N. sanctions against Syria, its longtime ally.

Read more: U.N. agencies: Stop the suffering in Syria

Located in northwest Syria, Aleppo has been torn by months of fighting between government forces and rebel groups, who control much of the city, where electricity and food have been in short supply.

Two blasts at Aleppo University killed at least 82 people Tuesday, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told the U.N. Security Council. Another 162 students were wounded in the "cowardly terrorist act," he said.

Read more: As fighting subsides, Aleppo residents find little left

Syrian diplomat: We have started to win
Inside the life of a Syrian rebel
Report ties Syrian rebels to al Qaeda

Referring to the rebels, state-run media blamed "terrorists" for the explosions, which occurred on the first day of exams at the school.

But regime warplanes shelled the university, said Free Syria Army spokesman Abdulla Yasin. The rebels were nowhere near the campus, which is in a government-controlled area, he said.

In addition to housing students, the university dormitories -- which bore the brunt of Tuesday's attack -- are serving as temporary homes to families displaced by fighting in Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

Read more: Syrian refugee crisis

Across Aleppo, 99 deaths were counted Tuesday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

CNN cannot independently verify many claims from Syria, as the government has severely restricted access by international journalists.

Despite Moscow's announcement, another longtime Syrian ally predicted Tuesday that Damascus will emerge triumphant from the strife.

Read more: Syrian rebel leader talks victory and squalor

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made that prediction in a meeting in Tehran with Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halki, Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

"We pray that chaotic situation, which certain powers have imposed against Syria, will end by Syrian nation solidarity," the president said, IRNA reported.

The events came on the same day that a video was posted online showing what it says are two Syrian military officers begging President Bashar al-Assad to set up a prisoner swap to free them from their rebel captors.

In the video, the two men say they were abducted last October by the Free Syrian Army, a loosely organized group of Syrians who have been fighting for nearly two years to oust al-Assad.

Government frees 2,130 prisoners in exchange for 48 Iranians

"We were captured by FSA while we were armed, and we have been treated based on the International conventions," says Gen. Brig. Ahmed Raeidi, referring to international detention laws.

Raeidi and Staff Brigadier Hussein Allouch, an engineer from the Armored Vehicles Department, are shown beseeching al-Assad -- a fellow Alawite -- to help them.

"We have been pleading with the Syrian regime to consider our release and to arrange a prisoner swap in exchange (for) 50 innocent civilians, including women, but we haven't received any response from the Syrian authorities," Raeidi says.

The Syrian government has recently engaged in prisoner swaps.

Last week, 48 Iranians who had been held hostage by Syrian rebels for five months were freed in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 government prisoners.

Read more: Syrian rebels hold pro-government prisoners in former school

"I urge you, Mr. President, are the Syrian officers considered to be nothing and less important than some Iranian citizens?" Raeidi said, his voice cracking, "Or (does) the foreign policy ... force us to remain victims and remain in captivity?"

He adds, "Thanks for listening."

The video is one of many on the Internet that purport to depict the war in Syria -- images that tell the world a story far different from the one the Syrian government allows international journalists to see during the occasional official visits that the regime allows.

Since the uprising began in March 2011, al-Assad has accused "terrorists" of causing the violence in Syria and has said his government has the right to fight back.

The FSA says al-Assad's government has oppressed the country for years and has slaughtered thousands of innocent Syrians in recent months to retain power.

Another day, more death

In all, at least 237 people were killed Tuesday, according to the opposition LCC.

In Damascus, the capital and seat of al-Assad's power, the Syrian air force continued an intense assault, rebels said.

Rebels said a government jet fighter shelled the eastern Ghouta neighborhood in Damascus, an attack that was captured on video and posted on the Web.

Brahimi called 'an aging tourist'

Efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi to broker a peace were met with derision by a state-run newspaper, which described the 78-year-old U.N. and Arab League joint special envoy as "an aging tourist."

"Brahimi's hands show zero accomplishments after almost a year since he took over," an al-Tawra editorial said. "Worse than that is that we now believe that his hands may have been stained in attempts to undermine the political settlements to end the Syrian crisis."

Brahimi's "assessment of the political situation in Syria" is "short-sighted," the piece said. He is a "tool to some international parties just like the United Nations and its agencies.

"Brahimi is coming back and, in his briefcase, there are requests and ideas that are not his."

Read more: Pentagon weighs how to secure Syria's chemical weapons

Another newspaper in Syria -- also state-run -- said Tuesday that Brahimi "lives off the breadcrumbs of the Qatari royal court."

At the same time, France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter signed by 55 countries to the U.N. Security Council that appealed to the world body to oppose aggressively the actions of al-Assad's regime.

The letter also urged the International Criminal Court to pursue action against the Syrian president.

A United Nations-based, independent international commission of inquiry has found evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly called for the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

But Russia's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday in a commentary that it would not support taking the matter to the ICC.

"We believe that this idea is not properly timed and counterproductive for tackling the priority task at this moment -- early termination of bloodshed in Syria," it said in a commentary.

"We are certain that speculations over the theme of international criminal prosecution and search for culprits would merely contribute to the rival parties taking firmer irreconcilable positions and complicate the search for ways of a political and diplomatic settlement of the Syrian conflict," the Foreign Ministry said.

What's next for Syria in 2013?

CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali, Saad Abedine and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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