SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The violence that has racked Syria for over a year now shows little sign of letting up. It appears in fact to be getting worse in the prelude to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that is supposed to start in less than a week. Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed in the past few days, as Syrian forces seem to step up fierce attacks on a number of towns and cities. And as NPR's Grant Clark reports, there is much international skepticism that a peace plan for Syria will get off the ground next week.
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GRANT CLARK, BYLINE: The sound of shelling near the small town of Taftanaz in Syria's northern Idlib province, just one of a number of areas that has suffered heavy bombardment by Syrian forces in the past four days, according to local activists. Their claims could not be independently verified but amateur videos show military helicopters firing rockets, tanks rolling through the town's streets and buildings in ruins.
Reached in Taftanaz via Skype, activist Alaa Abu Yusuf of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said some 80 people who were killed in that three-day ground and air assault had been identified. The latest offensive in Idlib has sparked a flood of refugees into neighboring Turkey - more than 3,200 have crossed the border, officials there say. The intensified attacks ironically came as a U.N. advance team arrived in Damascus to pave the way for the deployment of observers to monitor the cease-fire.
President Bashar al-Assad has told international envoy Kofi Annan that his military had begun partially withdrawing from certain towns and cities, including Idlib, in line with a proposed peace plan. But U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford refutes that. In a Facebook message posted yesterday, Ford said while that appeared to be true, satellite photos show that government forces had merely moved armored vehicles to other towns and kept artillery within striking range. Opposition fighters vow to lay down arms within 48 hours if Assad keeps his word. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the latest uptick in violence does not bode well.
MARK TONER: It's not surprising, certainly discouraging. It is clear that the Assad regime appears to be using this window to continue to carry out its horrible assault on the Syrian people.
CLARK: The question is: what happens if the cease-fire deadline is not met?
AHMAD FAWZI: That is a very big question, the what if question.
CLARK: That's Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, at a press conference on Thursday.
FAWZI: I would rather refer you to member states on that issue, because you have heard member states say that this is the last chance.
CLARK: Military operations are reportedly continuing today, with both sides blaming each other the increased attacks. Grant Clark, NPR News, Beirut.
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