Government Crackdown Leaves More Dead In Syria

Melissa Block speaks with Al Jazeera correspondent Anita McNaught about Syria's governmental crackdown on Idlib. She was there over the weekend, and is now in Antakya, Turkey, on the border with Syria.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The news from Syria today is once again of brutal attacks by the government on its own civilians. Even as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan visited Syria, seeking a cease-fire, there are reports of terrible atrocities. Activists say Syrian forces massacred dozens of people, including women and children, in the city of Homs. The Syrian government denies responsibility, blaming terrorist-armed groups.

After weeks of attacks on Homs, the northern city of Idlib has become a new focus of government assault, as we hear on this tape from Al-Jazeera.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

ANITA MCNAUGHT: Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers fly randomly and indiscriminately into the streets. And military helicopters armed with rockets fly overhead, acting as spotters for the tanks surrounding the city.

BLOCK: That's Al-Jazeera reporter Anita McNaught who is in Idlib over the weekend. She spoke to me today from just across the border in Turkey.

MCNAUGHT: They knew what they were facing when the tanks started rolling up, and they arrived five, 10, then 20. And by the time the assault was launched on Saturday morning, they had about 50 around this very compact agricultural town. There was no innocent reason for them being there, and the locals understood exactly what was likely to ensue.

They were saying to us days before this is another Homs coming. This is what happened to Baba Amr, and they're going to do the same to us. They're going to surround us. They're going to shell us. They're going to bomb us. And then they're going to move in, and they're going to start killing us, and this is what they feared.

They weren't able to prepare well. I mean, they couldn't get their emergency blood supplies sorted out. The siege of the city had started in earnest 10 days before. Supplies to the city had run out. They weren't able to get hold of anything other than the most rudimentary weapons. And they were really effectively defenseless. They knew they were, and they knew that what was coming was going to be horrendous.

BLOCK: The Free Syrian Army, the rebels, the defectors from the army itself, where are they getting their weapons? What do they have?

MCNAUGHT: They don't have a great deal. We'd spent some time traveling around the villages of the region before we actually went into Idlib city itself, looking for exactly what the supply lines and capabilities of the Free Syrian Army are. And at the moment, it's not good. They're buying shotguns from Turkey. And when I say shotguns, I mean the sort of things you usually shoot birds with. Military equipment from Iraq, the most worn-out and hopeless of Kalashnikovs. The price of individual bullets are now $3 on the black market.

On the walls scrolled in one of the Free Syrian Army training headquarters was sort of seven commandments. And one of them was: Please don't waste your ammunition. It's pointless firing a Kalashnikov bullet at a tank.

BLOCK: Hmm. Let me ask you this, Anita. The rebel soldiers, such as they are, are they embedded among the civilian population? So if they're firing at tanks, are they in effect attracting return fire at the very civilians that they would want to protect?

MCNAUGHT: I think that's a very strategic and military way of looking at things. The reality is this: The forces of the Assad regime are not picking military targets. They're not picking any targets other than the city itself and its civilian infrastructure. This isn't a city with a military area. This is just people's homes, and that's what the tanks are firing into directly and indiscriminately.

When you use terms like embedded, these fighters are sons of the families in the city. They're not embedded in any military sense with anyone. They're on the street corners. They're hiding around sides of buildings, but those are precisely the buildings that the tanks are firing into. And what use are their light weapons, their Kalashnikovs, their shotguns against the massive powerful and heavily equipped military that the Syrian government has to call upon?

BLOCK: Anita McNaught, there are reports coming in of a horrifying massacre in the city of Homs, children slaughtered reportedly in front of their mothers, the women raped by Syrian soldiers. Were you hearing accounts of any similar atrocities in Idlib province when you were there?

MCNAUGHT: They were expecting the same thing to happen in Idlib city. It was terrible walking out of that place and hearing the shelling and the sniper fires still going on and knowing what we are leaving the civilians behind to face. They all are in no doubt that these massacres occur. All I can say to you is that when I left the city of Idlib, that was among the many worst fears that the residents had.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Al-Jazeera correspondent Anita McNaught who was in the northern Syrian city of Idlib over the weekend. Thank you so much for talking with us.

MCNAUGHT: Melissa, it's a pleasure.

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