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U.N. Presence Fails To Prevent Syrian Bloodshed

May 16, 2012
Originally published on May 16, 2012 8:51 pm

There was a deadly clash in northern Syria on Tuesday, but it was different than many other such episodes over the past 14 months of the Syrian uprising.

This time, United Nations monitors were watching. The monitors are in Syria to keep an eye on the government forces and the opposition, who are supposed to be observing a cease-fire and opening a dialogue.

But the trouble Tuesday began with a funeral the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

A man who was killed by Syrian security forces over the weekend was about to be buried. The funeral was held in a part of town that claims to be free — meaning it no longer considers itself under the control of the Syrian government.

It's held by anti-government rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. Still, the government's army and security forces maintain checkpoints in other parts of town.

It was these checkpoints that reportedly drew the attention of the U.N. monitors. Under the U.N. peace plan, the government's soldiers and security forces are supposed to pull out of cities and towns.

Funeral Turns Into A Protest

Residents of Khan Sheikhoun say U.N. monitors watched the funeral, which quickly turned into a protest against the government.

Emboldened by the monitors, protesters and rebels shouted insults at government soldiers.

The Syrian soldiers and security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire. Parts of the confrontation were captured on video that has been posted on YouTube, including one that shows a tangle of bodies falling to the ground. Then the film goes blank. Activists in Khan Sheikhoun say the man who shot the video was killed.

Amid the chaos, U.N. monitors went back to their cars. Then, an explosion went off, producing a huge cloud of white dust. The lead U.N. truck was mangled by the explosion.

Other U.N. vehicles were also damaged. The vehicles speed away from the scene, at least one of them running over bodies of the injured or dead.

Like so many confrontations in Syria, there are multiple versions of this story. Residents say government security forces launched a grenade at the UN truck. The government says it was a bomb planted by what it calls terrorists.

The UN would only say that it was a homemade bomb.

Death Toll Is More Than 30

The blast and the shooting that preceded have left more than 30 people dead, many of them civilians.

Another video uploaded by activists on YouTube shows young men with gruesome gunshot wounds at a makeshift field hospital.

People who oppose the government in Syria are often too afraid to go to government hospitals.

Journalists have generally been barred from reporting in Syria, and none of the videos could be independently verified. However, residents of the village have confirmed that rebels and government soldiers clashed in Khan Sheikhoun after the explosion. An army tank was set on fire by the rebels, according to the govenrment forces.

The situation was so volatile Tuesday that the U.N. monitors could not leave Khan Sheikhoun. They ended up staying the night in the village.

Residents say the monitors were able to negotiate a halt in the fighting Wednesday and that other monitors were allowed to come and pick them up.

One final video shows the destroyed U.N. trucks being towed away while the young boys of Khan Sheikhoun look on. Residents say soon thereafter, the tanks rolled back into town and started shooting again.

The U.N. mission in Syria has found that there is no peace for it to monitor. Rather, the hope is that it can create the peace. In some parts of Syria, the mere presence of monitors has brought a lull in the violence. But not this week.

One activist in Khan Sheikhoun, speaking in an interview over Skype, said he thought the monitors should leave for good. Before they came, the town was bad, he said. Now that they've pulled out, Khan Skeikhoun is burning.

Lava Selo contributed to this report.

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

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And first this hour, to Syria where violence continues even in the presence of U.N. monitors. In one northern Syrian town, the death toll has risen to at least 34 people after a protest yesterday turned deadly. That incident marked the first time that U.N. monitors have been attacked since they entered Syria. They've been trying to encourage the government and rebels to comply with a shaky cease fire plan. NPR's Kelly McEvers explains what happened in this one town.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It started with a funeral. A man who was killed by Syrian security forces over the weekend was about to be buried in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The funeral was held in a part of town that claims to be free, meaning it's no longer under the control of the Syrian government. Instead, it's held by anti-government rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army.

Still, the government's army and security forces maintain checkpoints in other parts of town. It was these checkpoints that reportedly drew the attention of the U.N. monitors. Under the U.N. peace plan, the government's soldiers and security forces are supposed to pull out of cities and towns. Residents of Khan Sheikhoun say U.N. monitors watched the funeral, which quickly turned into a protest against the government.

Emboldened by the monitors, protesters and rebels shouted insults at government soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: Soldiers and security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire. This video shows a tangle of bodies falling to the ground. Then the film goes blank. Activists in Khan Sheikhoun say the man who shot the video died. At some point, the U.N. monitors go back to their trucks. Then, an explosion goes off and produces a huge cloud of white dust. The front of the lead U.N. truck is mangled by the explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: Like so many things in Syria, there are two versions of this story. Residents say government security forces launched a grenade at the U.N. truck. The government says it was a bomb planted by what it calls terrorists. Either way, the blast and the shooting that preceded it killed dozens of people, many of them civilians.

This video uploaded to YouTube by Syrian activists shows young men with gruesome gunshot wounds being brought to a makeshift field hospital. It's important to say that none of these videos can be independently verified. Journalists are restricted from reporting in much of Syria. What we do know is that the rebels and the government soldiers clashed in Khan Sheikhoun after the explosion.

The situation was so volatile that the U.N. monitors could not leave Khan Sheikhoun. They ended up staying the night in the town. Then, today, residents say the monitors were able to negotiate a halt in the fighting and let other monitors come and pick them up. This final video shows the destroyed U.N. trucks being towed away. Residents say, thereafter, the tanks rolled back into town and started shooting again.

The U.N. mission in Syria has been called a unique one. Rather than monitoring the peace, the hope is that it can create the peace. In some parts of Syria, the mere presence of monitors has brought a lull in the violence but not this week. I think we should ask the monitors to leave, one activist in Khan Sheikhoun told us over Skype. Before they came, the town was bad, he said. Now that they've gone, Khan Skeikhoun is burning.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

SIEGEL: And Lava Selo contributed to that report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.