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Syrian Violence Escalates Into Civil War


Across the border in Syrian, reports of clashes between the army and rebels overnight in a neighborhood in Damascus. It was some of the heaviest fighting so far in the capital, according to residents and activists who say the army for the first time bombarded one neighborhood with mortars.

The new fighting comes in a new context. Over the weekend, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict in Syria a civil war. That isn't just a label. It means all the combatants are subject to the Geneva Conventions and liable to be prosecuted for war crimes.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring Syria from the Turkish city of Antakya, and joined us to talk about what she's finding out.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Deborah, monitors from the U.N. released more findings in an investigation of a mass killing in a remote farming village called Tremseh. Syria's government is disputing that report. What is the story there?

AMOS: It's all over the use of heavy weapons. The U.N. monitors - some of them who were actually eyewitnesses to the siege of Tremseh, because they were at a checkpoint outside the town - reported shelling. The Syrian government says, no, that they didn't use heavy weapons. And it's an important distinction, because in a U.N. peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the Syrian government pledged not to use heavy weapons. Now, Annan himself has said the plan has failed. He's on his way to Moscow today for talks there. Russia is Syria's most important ally. So Syrian officials have accused the U.N. monitors of filing a politically motivated report ahead of those Moscow talks.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it clear what happened in that village?

AMOS: Not completely. But the U.N. monitors say that these attacks were targeted. The Syrian military targeted rebels and activists in this Sunni Muslim town. The initial death toll of more than 200 people is still in dispute, but more details are emerging from Tremseh that the army was hunting people, executing them, according to residents there. I talked to a Spanish photographer, Daniel Leal Olivas. He managed to get into Tremseh on Friday, and it was a day after the killings. And he basically says the same thing as the U.N. monitors. And here's what he saw.

DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS: So, we went to the backyard of one house, and there we found a room. And it was full of blood. It was with handprints from blood in the wall. And everyone was saying that they - we found bodies here, executed. The sense I get is they were looking for people. This is the sense I get.

AMOS: That's Daniel Leal Olivas. And he also said that the people of Tremseh were terrified by what had happened: shelling that began at 5 a.m. and then soldiers and armed civilians entered Tremseh, executing people and burning houses, he said.

OLIVAS: Police come into my house. They burn my house completely. And one of the guys came to me and said, please, don't go, because as soon as they go, they're going to come back again and they're going to kill us.

AMOS: Photographer Olivas was one of the few outsiders to get into Tremseh. Here in Turkey, rebel commanders do confirm that at least 50 rebels were killed.

MONTAGNE: Now, the heavy fighting we're hearing about in Damascus, the capital, is a new development. What can you tell us about what's happening there?

AMOS: Over the past few weeks, Renee, clashes between the army and the rebels have been creeping closer to the center of the city. There's been fighting in the suburbs for months, but now, according to residents, the armies use mortars to combat rebels closer to the heart of the city. This latest fighting erupted near the Palestinian refugee neighborhood of Yarmouk. A day earlier, a government sniper killed a Palestinian there. There was a large funeral. And all of this escalated. It's noteworthy, because the Palestinian refugees have mostly stayed out of this fight. They are guests in the country, as Syrian officials reminded them publicly in statements over the weekend. Now, today, reports from Damascus say traffic is normal. Everything's calm again. But these clashes can erupt at any time.

MONTAGNE: Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Antakya, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.