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U.N. Monitors Fail To Halt Violence In Syria

Apr 25, 2012
Originally published on April 26, 2012 2:03 am

The U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Syria keeps unraveling. Syrian government troops were supposed to pull their tanks and soldiers out of cities and towns, while rebels were supposed to lay down their arms.

Yet hundreds of people have died in recent days, according to activists. And in some areas, visits by U.N. observers have been followed by intense violence.

Only about a dozen U.N. observers have reached Syria. Wearing their signature U.N.-blue berets or helmets, their goal is to see whether government troops and rebels are sticking to the cease-fire, which went into effect April 12.

In some places, like the flashpoint city of Homs, the mere presence of monitors does seem to be stemming the violence.

Fighting In Hama

But in other locations, like the central city of Hama, it's not so simple.

Videos taken by Hama residents and posted on the Internet show people holding olive branches, crowding around the U.N. monitors' vans, begging for help with detained relatives or destroyed homes.

"Bashar al-Assad kills us," one man says, referring to the Syrian president. "We want freedom."

In another video, you see a soldier standing on a roof in Hama, swiping his hand across his chin in a common Syrian gesture. "Just wait till later," he is saying with his hands. "You'll see."

After the monitors left, people began protesting against the Syrian regime. Activists say snipers posted on rooftops — like the one in the video — opened fire — a fairly common occurrence these days in Syria. To go out and protest is to risk being injured or killed.

The next morning, conditions grew worse. Another video shows tank shells reducing parts of houses to rubble. While Hama has been shelled intermittently during the past year, residents say it has never been this bad. Houses started crumbling and people were killed, according to residents.

The Rebels Strike Back

And then the situation grew more complicated.

Rebels known as the Free Syrian Army began fighting back. If the government won't keep up its end of the cease-fire, says a rebel fighter from Hama who goes by the name Abu Mazen, then they won't either.

"The cease-fire has never been respected by the government. They are shelling Homs, they are shelling Hama, they are shelling everywhere," he says through an interpreter. He estimated that about 50 people a day were dying since the U.N. observers reached Syria.

Abu Mazen says the rebels in Hama decided to fight back by shooting and killing a colonel who was leading the offensive. Other reports say his driver was also killed.

After that, the army assault intensified. The shelling increased and snipers reportedly shot anyone who tried to leave the area.

Activists say bodies had to be buried in a garden because no one could leave the area. In all, at least 30 people were killed in the city, they say.

One activist, who goes by the name Manhal, says while civilians were targeted in retaliation for the killing of the colonel, they were targeted before that for speaking to U.N. observers. He says he has the names of at least six people who spoke to observers and were later killed by Syrian troops.

"They came to kill. They came to shell," Manhal says.

U.N. and U.S. officials say they are disturbed by the news of what happened in Hama.

"It is absolutely deplorable, if there is this kind of intimidation, harassment and possible violence against those Syrians who have every right to meet with and discuss the monitors," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"That's what the monitors are there for."

Later, the U.N. observers returned to Hama. Many people were afraid to talk to them. Others covered their faces. They showed the monitors destroyed homes and a makeshift graveyard where the dead had to be buried.

Now the U.N. plans to keep two observers in Hama indefinitely.

Sean Carberry contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

After a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Syria, government troops were supposed to pull their tanks and soldiers out of cities and towns. Rebels were supposed to lay down their arms and the killing was supposed to stop. But hundreds of people have died in recent days.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports that in some areas, visits by U.N. observers are sparking even more violence.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Right now, there are about a dozen U.N. observers in Syria. Wearing their signature U.N.-blue berets or helmets, their goal is to see whether government troops and rebels are sticking to the cease-fire. In some places, like the flashpoint city of Homs, the mere presence of monitors does seem to be stemming the violence. But in others it's not so simple.

The trouble started earlier this week in the central Syrian city of Hama.

In videos taken by residents of Hama, you see people holding olive branches, crowding around the U.N. monitors' vans, begging for help with detained relatives and destroyed homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

MCEVERS: Bashar al-Assad kills us, one man says, referring to the Syrian president. We want freedom.

After the monitors left, the protests continued. Activists say snipers posted on rooftops opened fire. This sadly is fairly common these days in Syria. To go out and protest is to risk being injured or killed. It wasn't until the next morning that things got really bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: Activists who filmed this video say God is great, as tank shells reduce parts of houses to rubble. While Hama has been shelled intermittently before, residents say they've never seen anything like this. Homes started crumbling, people started dying. And then, as with many stories in Syria, things got complicated.

Rebels known as the Free Syrian Army began fighting back. If the government won't keep up its end of the ceasefire, says a rebel fighter from Hama - who goes by the name Abu Mazen - then we won't either.

ABU MAZEN: (Through Translator) The ceasefire has never been respected by the government. While they are shelling Homs, they are shelling Hama, they are shelling everywhere. It's still like 50 killed every day since the observer entered the country.

MCEVERS: Abu Mazen says the fighters in Hama fought back by shooting and killing a colonel who was leading the offensive. Other reports say his driver was also killed.

The shelling intensified and snipers reportedly shot anyone who tried to leave the area. Activists say bodies had to be buried in a garden because no one could make it to the graveyard. In all, at least 30 people were killed.

One activist, who goes by the name Manhal, says while civilians were targeted in retaliation for the killing of the colonel, they were targeted before that for speaking to U.N. observers. He says he has the names of at least six people who spoke to observers and later were killed by Syrian troops.

MANHAL: They came to kill. They came to shell. They seized the area and after that they started shelling.

MCEVERS: And shooting.

The U.N. observers did go back to Hama. Many people were afraid to talk to them. Others covered their faces. They showed the monitors destroyed homes and the makeshift graveyard.

Now the U.N. has confirmed it will have two observers posted in Hama indefinitely.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.