The UN chief has blamed al-Qaeda for two deadly car bombs in Syria last week, as Kofi Annan gears up to visit the country in an effort to patch up his increasingly ragged peace plan.

Large anti-regime protests erupted in the second city of Aleppo on Friday, activists said, as the head of the UN observer team in Syria insisted his mission had produced a “calming effect”, despite daily ceasefire breaches and rising violence.

While Ban Ki-Moon’s assertion of al-Qaeda involvement plays into claims by President Bashar al-Assad’s government that it is facing a terrorist assault, many other analysts say it is still impossible to say who is behind a wave of bombings around the country.

“Very alarmingly and surprisingly, a few days ago, there was a huge serious massive terrorist attack,” Mr Ban said. “I believe that there must be al-Qaeda behind it. This has created again very serious problems.”

The office of Mr Annan, the special UN and Arab League peace envoy to Syria, refused to repeat Mr Ban’s claim, saying only that a worrying and unidentified “third element” had appeared in the more than year long uprising against the four decade old Assad family dictatorship. Ahmad Fawzi, Mr Annan’s spokesperson, said the envoy was expected to visit Damascus soon, although he declined to confirm reports that he might arrive as early as Friday night.

The bombings in Syria began in Damascus in December and have become increasingly frequent in the last few weeks, with the two devices last week reported to have killed 55 people and left almost 400 wounded. Claims and counter-claims have swirled since over whether jihadists – whom US officials say are now operating in Syria – are responsible.

Gen Robert Mood, head of the more than 250-strong UN peacekeeping mission, told journalists in Damascus that he was “very pleased to see and witness an immediate calming effect brought about by our arrival”, although he added: “I share the worries of everyone who is concerned that we are seeing more violence in the last days than we did in the previous days.”

Opposition activists said at least 10,000 people demonstrated in Aleppo, which has become increasingly restive as its university and poorer suburbs have become protest centres. Sustained unrest in Aleppo, the commercial capital, would change the dynamic of a contest in which the regime has maintained control of the two main cities and launched assaults against opposition strongholds in other urban centres.

Both sides have been widely accused of ceasefire violations in a conflict that – after a brutal government security force crackdown – has become increasingly militarised on the opposition side.

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