Is Latest Attack In Syria A Game Changer?

May 27, 2012
Originally published on May 27, 2012 6:55 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Amid international outrage, the United Nations Security Council is meeting today to discuss the killing of at least 90 people in central Syria this weekend. More than 30 of the dead were children under the age of 10. The United Nations has confirmed that they were killed by tank shells and artillery fire. While the U.N. did not say outright this was the work of the Syrian army, activists and residents say the military is the only institution that has these such weapons.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has been reporting on Syria from nearby Beirut. Many Western journalists are restricted from traveling to Syria. She joins us now.

First, Kelly, can you tell us what you've been able to learn about the attack?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Yeah. What we know is that this happened in a cluster of villages called Al Hola, just outside the city of Homs. As you know, Homs has been a flashpoint city in the Syrian uprising for some time, a center for anti-government rebels. We know that on Friday, as always on Friday for almost 15 months now, people went out to protest against the government. And when they did, they say they came under attack by the government, by shells and artillery fire.

They say that at that point, rebels - many of them defectors from the army, people who are against the government went out to the army checkpoint and fought back, basically. And that's when they say the attack got even worse. The shelling intensified and then, at some point, some residents say that pro-government thugs - militiamen - came into the town and went from house to house, burning houses and slaughtering people. And this is not the first time this has happened.

We know that this has happened. It's been documented by human rights groups and the U.N. in other places. We can't be there to actually verify what happened. What we do have are videos that residents and activists upload, like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HOMEMADE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: I can't tell you how gruesome this video is, really. The people are shouting and they're shouting the date. They're saying, look, everyone. Look, Muslims. Look, Arabs. Look, world at what's happened. And it shows children littering the floor, literally, children who've been gravely injured and who are dead.

MARTIN: So, we have seen these kinds of horrific videos and images posted online by activist and citizen journalists before. But what's different about this case?

MCEVERS: This case is different because the United Nations, which now has observers inside Syria, is supposed to be monitoring a cease-fire that's obviously not working out very well, actually confirmed these deaths. They went to the town the next day, and they said that they saw the evidence of tank shells and artillery fire in the town. They did not directly point the finger, as you said, at the government of Syria.

But it's clear that no one else could've perpetrated these crimes. And since then, there has been massive outcry from the United Nations, from the Arab League, from officials in the U.K., France, the United States, all calling on the Syrian government to be held accountable for these crimes.

MARTIN: So what is the Syrian government saying? Are they giving a version of these events?

MCEVERS: They are, and it's the typical version. They are pointing the blame at terrorists. They came out today denying involvement in the attack and saying they're going to launch an inquiry into what happened.

MARTIN: And up until now, the international community has really been hamstrung on what to do in Syria. Is this likely to tip the scales in any way, do you think?

MCEVERS: It's possible. I mean, if the numbers that we're seeing are correct this could be the largest act of violence against civilians in this entire conflict going forward. Up until now, the Syrian regime, especially recently, has been able to kind of paint this as an equal fight. You know, it's us versus the armed terrorists, as if they are on equal footing.

But the United Nations and I think a lot of Western countries, have been trying to remind folks that it's actually the Syrian government that has, you know, much more weight in this fight. It's got a fully functioning army. There are armed rebels working inside the country, but they don't have the kind of weaponry, the kind of manpower that the Syrian government has. So, at some point, they're saying the Syrian government has to be held accountable.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelly McEvers reporting from Beirut. Thanks so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.