In Damascus, Army And Civilians Scramble For Safe Havens

UN inspectors are winding up their mission to Syria, attempting to determine whether or not chemical weapons were used in last week's attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. On Friday the inspectors went to a military hospital where the government says soldiers hit in a chemical weapons assault are being treated. Damascus residents say the Syrian army is moving troops and equipment into residential areas in anticipation of a U.S. military strike aimed at punishing the regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. U.N. weapons inspectors visited a military hospital in Damascus today. There, they saw the effects of what the Syrian government says were chemical weapons attacks by rebel fighters. The inspectors have already collected samples from a rebel-held suburb that was allegedly struck with chemical weapons more than a week ago, early on August 21st.

SIEGEL: Today, the Obama administration argued the case that the Syrian government was behind that attack and that something needs to be done. President Obama said, the world has an obligation to maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

BLOCK: Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the administration's evidence against the Syrian regime.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when.

BLOCK: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Beirut and he's been hearing from Damascus residents who say both the army and civilians are preparing for a possible U.S. strike and scrambling for safe haven.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After visiting the scene of an apparent chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that has been condemned as a savage war crime, the U.N. team looked into government charges that its forces and civilians have also suffered from chemical weapons attacks. The inspectors are expected to brief the U.N. leadership over the weekend, as Washington ponders the scope and timing of a possible missile strike intended, officials say, to show Assad that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.

Whatever the inspectors say about their findings, the Obama administration is already declaring that chemical weapons were used and used by the Assad government. Syrians reached in Damascus say the Syrian military appears convinced that a missile strike is imminent, judging by the way it's hustling gear and personnel out of military bases and into residential areas.

SUSAN AKMAD: Assad's forces took control over the campus - you know, the university campus. It's like now security branch.

KENYON: An activist who identifies herself as Susan Akmad says about a dozen schools, including Damascus University, have been taken over by the military.

AKMAD: They are now sleeping in the schools in the university campus because they know that it's illegal, according to the international law, to target schools and universities.

KENYON: She also says weapons have been seen being taken out of military bases, but activists don't know where they're being redeployed to.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KENYON: Videos posted to the Internet appear to show that some of the military's weapons are still being put to use in an assault on the suburb of Ghouta, where the devastating apparent chemical weapons attack occurred Wednesday. Even as the U.N. inspectors completed their work, videos showed shells and mortars hitting residential areas in rebel-held neighborhoods. An opposition activist from Ghouta who goes by the name Mohammad Sela Odine says it was only calm while the inspectors were there.

MOHAMMAD SELA ODINE: (Foreign Language Spoken)

KENYON: Last night, after the U.N. inspectors left Ghouta, the shelling started up again. It was insane, he said. They mainly hit the Zimaka and Arveen neighborhoods. It went on all night and well into the morning. Despite the urgent need to stockpile food, medicine and other basics in case of a U.S. missile strike, Syrians are paying attention to the debate unfolding in the West, particularly Britain's parliamentary vote against joining in any military action, at least for the moment.

Activist Susan Akmad says her friends are deeply frustrated to think that long awaited international action against the Assad regime may now be delayed or reconsidered. But in the pro-government Mauzay neighborhood, she says the vote in London sparked a street party.

AKMAD: After the British Parliament decided not to participate in the strike, pro-Assad people took the streets. They celebrated that and they chanted that all the world was afraid of Assad. And all the world was not going to do anything because Assad is very strong.

KENYON: There are also signs, meanwhile, that Islamist units among the opposition rebel fighters are also taking cover in case they might be targeted in a U.S. attack. A witness who regularly visits the Islamic State of Iraq unit in Aleppo says their headquarters is now all but deserted. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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