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Syrian Government Accused Of Reprisal Attacks


We're following news this morning of more killings in the Syrian city of Homs. That's the city where rebel neighborhoods came under artillery fire for weeks and where two Western journalists were killed. Rebels later retreated, but residents and activists say pro-government militias have massacred dozens of civilians, mainly women and children. NPR's Kelly McEvers is following this story from Beirut.

And, Kelly, what evidence you have?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: What we're hearing from residents and activists in the Karm el-Zaytoun neighborhood of Homs is that the army shelled the neighborhood with tanks. This is pretty common now for these parts of Homs that are seen as some rebel strongholds, places where people oppose the government.

And the activists tell us that after the shelling that these pro-government thugs, known as Shabiha - it actually means ghosts in Arabic - came into the neighborhood. One man who says he survived one of these massacres and released a video testimony says that they rounded people up into rooms, shot several of them and then doused gasoline on people and rooms and set them on fire.

The numbers we're getting are dozens. We don't have a clear number right now. But we have seen shocking, horrible pictures of children who looked like they were killed by gunshots and blunt objects and women and old men.

INSKEEP: And just to be absolutely clear on this, didn't the rebel gunmen, to the extent there were any, retreat from that area some time ago? The people who remained are believed to be civilians.

MCEVERS: Exactly. They retreated from the Baba Amr neighborhood. This was the kind of notorious neighborhood of Homs where rebels were holding tough for a while. What we think is happening now is that the civilians who fled Baba Amr into neighboring areas - this is Karm el-Zaytoun, Bab Seba'a - some of these other neighborhoods in Homs. What it sounds like, what activists are telling us is that now pro-government thugs are basically going into these neighboring areas and mopping those up as well. There probably are some rebel fighters still left in Homs. They didn't all just disappear. But a lot of the victims of these killings are civilians.

INSKEEP: Now, what is the Syrian government saying about these allegations that women and children are among those massacred in the way that you described?

MCEVERS: The Syrian government actually acknowledged that the killing took place. But, of course, the Syrian government put the blame on what it calls armed groups. This is the Syrian government's euphemism for basically anyone who opposes the government, anyone who goes out to protest, anyone who has picked up a gun to defend himself against these pro-government thugs, anyone who's defected from the army.

So they basically say that the armed groups carried out these killings and then staged these videos as a way to oppose the government. I have to tell you, I've seen these videos and these photographs. And you can't make this stuff up. These are horrible deaths.

The thing that we cannot verify, because we cannot enter Syria is who exactly did the killing. We just don't know. One thing that is disturbing is that this is an area of Homs that is very much divided by Sect. Karm el-Zaytoun is a mixed neighborhood of Sunnis and Alawites. And either way, regardless of who did the killing, it looks like it's an escalation of sectarian killings and reprisals that we've seen all along.

INSKEEP: Well, Kelly, what does this mean for the prospects of Kofi Annan, the United Nations envoy who's just been in Damascus trying to achieve some kind of cease fire?

MCEVERS: Yeah. He was talking to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the prospects look very dim. Assad basically said that, you know, there will be no cease fire in Syria until all the armed groups are gone. Well, if the armed groups are all the people who are protesting and all the people who oppose the government, that's a pretty tall order.

On the opposition side, they say they won't enter talks with the government until Bashar al-Assad steps down. So you've got both sides, you know, digging in their heels, and the prospects for peace are very dim.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers.

Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.