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Death Toll Rises As Syrian Troops Bombard Homs


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Syria, these past days, has offered two, starkly different visions of how a country treats its citizens. In some areas, the government counted votes, ratifying a new constitution. In other places, the government stepped up a bombardment that's killing its people. Little help is getting to the victims of that bombing. Word did come this morning that one Western journalist, wounded in an attack that killed two foreign journalists last week, has managed to get out of Syria.

For more, we reached NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut, where she's following events. Kelly, good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with the violence, which seems to be unending. Tell us what you know - more about that.

MCEVERS: In certain parts of Syria, the violence is unending, and it's mainly focused on the city of Homs. As we know, for the past 25 days now, the Syrian army has been bombarding the neighborhoods of Homs that have seen the most resistance to the government; namely, the neighborhood of Bab Amr. What we saw yesterday is, you know, continued mortar and rocket fire on this neighborhood.

But also, we are getting reports from two separate activist groups that families that were trying to flee Bab Amr, the men of these families were actually kidnapped and massacred after being taken out on a bus, and that the women and children from these families are now missing. We've got conflicting reports about how many people were killed in this fashion. But it's somewhere between 40 and 60.

MONTAGNE: We have, though, been seeing some reports that the Red Cross and Red Crescent have been able to enter some areas of Syria, to deliver humanitarian aid. What do you know about that?

MCEVERS: Right. So the Red Cross - I mean, their larger plan for Syria right now, what they've been negotiating for, is to try to convince the Syrian regime for at least a couple hours a day, to stop the fighting and allow them to bring in humanitarian supplies; to evacuate some of the most injured people out of the country. That, so far, has not happened.

They did manage to get into the central city of Hama yesterday, but they really need to get into these areas of Homs that we're talking about. There are hundreds of injured people in Homs. They are not allowed to go to the government hospitals. They are taking care of their own in makeshift field hospitals. At one point, the Syrian Red Crescent had gained access to that part of Homs, but there are many people inside this neighborhood that don't trust the Red Crescent; that frankly, believe that the Red Crescent is working with the regime, and might not necessarily be evacuating people to safety.

MONTAGNE: And then, in the middle of this terrible bloodshed, Syrian state media is reporting that millions of voters went to the polls to support this new draft constitution.

MCEVERS: Right. This is an element of reform that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been promising since as far back as June. Syrian state media, which we don't always trust, said that, you know, up to a third of the country's population did go out and did ratify this new draft constitution.

What's new about the constitution, that's the question. It does sort of say that no longer is Syria to be ruled by one party, the Baath Party. It seems to allow for multiparty proceedings. It sets term limits on the president. But those term limits, if you would interpret it one way, might not begin for another couple of years; and then would give him another two terms. So according to one interpretation of the new constitution, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could serve for another 16 years.

So, what most activists are saying is that this constitution, this attempt at reform, is too little too late.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, Kelly, the main opposition group based outside of Syria - I gather there's some problem there; that it's in somewhat of disarray.

MCEVERS: Right. So some members of this opposition group have announced that they are going to split and form their own group. What's more important than the fighting between various members of this group is the message that it sends. You know, the West and its allies have been looking for some kind of unified opposition to really take the lead here. And this shows that the opposition is more divided than ever, especially over the question of whether this uprising should be armed or not.

And it seems like this new splinter group favors arming what's known as the Free Syrian Army, which is a rebel organization working inside the country to support protesters.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring developments in Syria from Beirut. Thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. 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.
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.