Fierce Counterassault Follows Syrian Assassinations

Fighting continued in the Syrian capital of Damascus and its suburbs on Thursday. There are also reports of another major government offensive in northwestern Syria, near President Bashar Assad's hometown.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Syrian capital, Damascus, is suffering its worst violence in the 16-month uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The bomb attack yesterday that killed three top Assad security advisers, has led to a fierce counterassault by the Syrian military.

SIEGEL: In a few minutes, we'll hear from the United Nations and talk with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice. First, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from neighboring Lebanon on the situation in Syria, where people are desperately seeking safe haven as the death toll mounts.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It's a huge market day across the Muslim world, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan - but not in Damascus.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KENYON: Opposition activist Susan Ahmad - not her real name - who lives just 20 minutes from the city center, told NPR by Skype connection that Damascus today feels like it's at war.

"SUSAN AHMAD": Helicopters are shelling everywhere. Buildings are being hit. Actually, my neighborhood is being shelled now. Right now, helicopters are hovering, and people are really intimidated. Some of them are trying to run away to safer neighborhoods. but it's not safe at all, actually, to try to leave home now.

KENYON: Syrian state television showed footage of Assad attending the swearing-in of a defense minister to replace the one killed yesterday. State media quoted Assad as wishing him good luck, but the location of the swearing-in was not disclosed. Unconfirmed reports that Assad had left the capital, for the coastal city of Latakia, continued to circulate.

Speaking in Qatar, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Abdul Basit Sieda, latched on to the talking point bouncing around the Western media - that the bomb attack that breached the Assad family's inner-security sanctum, killing the president's brother-in-law and two other key security advisers, marked a decisive moment in the uprising.

ABDUL BASIT SIEDA: (Through translator) This is a turning point in Syria's history. The group that was targeted, is the one behind the killing of Syrians in the last 16 months.

KENYON: At the moment, the only certainty seems to be that more Syrian bloodshed is on the way. Lebanese officials say thousands of refugees have crossed over from Syria in the past 24 hours. Speaking in Damascus as the mandate for his U.N. observer mission runs out, General Robert Mood said it's clear what the Syrian people need. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Mood's rank is major general.]

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT MOOD: Less talk, and effective leadership, from the Security Council.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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Correction July 24, 2012

We incorrectly refer to Maj. Gen. Robert Mood as a general.

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