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Jihadi group claims responsibility for deadly Aleppo blasts

A series of suicide bombings in Syria's largest city has killed at least 31 people. State TV reports that three explosions rocked a government-controlled district in Aleppo. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.

Updated at 8:21 a.m. ET: A Syrian Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings in Syria's largest city that early Wednesday ripped through two hotels, a Syrian army officers' club and a city administrative complex, NBC News reported.

Four explosions ripped through a government-controlled district in Aleppo, causing widespread destruction and killing at least 40 people, according to activists.

The blasts in Aleppo, which came within minutes of each other, struck the main Saadallah al-Jabiri Square close to a military officers' club and a fifth bomb exploded a few hundred meters away, state television said.

The carnage took place on the fringes of the Old City where rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been fighting.

"Five minutes after the first explosion a second bomb exploded. A third exploded ten minutes after that," a state television reporter said. "There was a fourth car bomb which exploded before engineering units could defuse it."

The jihadi faction Jabhat al-Nusra, which is monitored by NBC News consultant Evan Kohlmann, formally claimed responsibility late Wednesday in a communique. The group said the operation involved at least two suicide bombers -- identified as "Abu Hamza al-Shami" and "Abu Sulaiman al-Shami" -- as well as three other attackers dressed as Syrian soldiers, who were identified as "Abu Anas al-Shami,"  "Abu Hafs al-Shami," and "Abu Dujanah al-Shami."

Pictures emerging from the scene showed extensive damage. Nadim Houry, deputy regional director for Human Rights Watch, posted a picture on Twitter showing piles of rubble in the central square.

Citing medical sources, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence in Syria through a network of activists, put the death toll at least 40 with 90 injured.

A Syria government official earlier told The Associated Press the death toll was 27. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear, and it is difficult for media to verify any claims made by either side in the country’s civil war.

The state television station also broadcast footage of 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 be holding a trigger device in his hand.

Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told regional news channel Al Jazeera the blasts appear to have been caused by car bombs and were followed by clashes and heavy gunfire.

Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad announced last week a new offensive in Aleppo, a commercial hub of 2.5 million people, but neither side has appeared to make significant gains so far.

The explosions also came a week after rebels bombed military command buildings in the heart of Damascus and clashed with security forces for several hours.

Manu Brabo / AP

A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country

That was the biggest attack in the capital since July 18 when a bomb killed several senior security officials including Assad's brother-in-law, the defense minister and a general.

Aleppo is now split in two, with Assad's forces mainly in the west and rebels in the east. Several large protests in support of the president have been held in Saadallah al-Jabiri square.

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Pro-Assad al-Ikhbariya television showed 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.

SANA via Reuters

EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture released by the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Men stand amid wreckage, after three blasts ripped through Aleppo's main Saadallah al-Jabari Square on Wednesday.

Many of the buildings on the square had their facades ripped off and there was a deep crater in the road.

Fighting only with light weaponry, rebels have resorted to bomb attacks in areas still controlled by Assad.

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

SANA via AP

EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture released by the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Men carry a dead body at the scene after several bombs exploded at Saadallah al-Jabiri Square in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday.

Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old anti-Assad uprising, which has grown into a full-scale civil war.

For much of the revolt, Assad has retained a grip on Aleppo with many rich merchants and minority groups there, fearful of instability, remaining neutral while protests spread.

Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News' Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.

In the outskirts of Aleppo, scenes of devastation fueled by the Syrian regime's warplanes have prompted new rebels to volunteer – some still in their teens. NBC's Ann Curry reports.

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