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Syria Plunges Into Another Week Of Deep Violence


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. August has been one of the deadliest months in the Syrian conflict. The death count is rising dramatically with fighting in and around the capital, and in Aleppo, Syria's financial capital in the north. This week, another grim record: a spike in the number of Syrians fleeing the country. At least 30,000 have crossed neighboring borders in just the past week. NPR's Deborah Amos is on the Turkish-Syrian border monitoring events and she joins us now. Deb, for the past few weeks, the focus in Syria has been on fighting in Aleppo. Now, there are reports of higher death tolls in the capital. What is happening?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, more people have been killed in and around the capital than in Aleppo. And it appears that the Syrian army is targeting neighborhoods around Damascus largely under rebel control. The most gruesome pictures are coming from Daraya. It's a neighborhood of about 150,000 people, a ten-minute drive from Damascus. Activists report more than 300 killed. If it's confirmed, it would be one of the worst attacks in the 17-month uprising. I reached a activist last night by phone, Omar - he doesn't want his last name broadcast - and he described the army assault on Daraya that began on Friday night.

OMAR: There were rockets. There were mortars, tanks and helicopters, and snipers were everywhere. They burned the hospital.

AMOS: Now, Omar and other activists say the army and civilian militias, they came house to house on Saturday. Now, they are finding body dumps across Daraya - mostly men.

OMAR: They were killed in a field execution.

AMOS: Omar and others say they expect the death toll to go higher as they search the city.

WERTHEIMER: Well, why target that particular neighborhood, Daraya?

AMOS: This was a neighborhood that had a heavy concentration of rebels. About a month ago, I spoke to people there and they said there was no regime presence at all. And they had been able to form committees - civilians and rebels, political committees, clean-up committees. The rebels say that they withdrew from Daraya on Friday, but it appears that the government is now intent on punishing civilians who sympathize with the rebels. It's impossible, of course, to confirm the details. There was a version of what happened in Daraya on Syrian television. And you see a reporter walking down empty streets, dead bodies, almost all shot execution-style. The camera zooms in on their faces, and the reporter tells the audience in Damascus that these people were shot by terrorists.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's talk about the fighting in the north. In Aleppo, it seems that is where the highest number of refugees are coming from.

AMOS: The Syrian air force has stepped up an air campaign to halt rebel advances in the city. And this has been very tough on civilians - about 90 percent of those killed in the artillery shelling and the bombs dropped by the air force are civilians. And that's according to Jeffrey White. He's a senior military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's here in Antakya. He's researching the Free Syrian Army. And he says the rebels take only 8 percent of the casualties in those bombing raids.

JEFFREY WHITE: The rebel military is pretty accepting of the fact of the risks of the air power. They shoot at them, try and drive them away. The civilians are just caught. They are just victims of air attack.

WERTHEIMER: Deb, with the number of Syrians fleeing the country rising so dramatically, how's Turkey coping?

AMOS: Well, the government here is building camps along the frontier - more of them - because more Syrians are expected to cross. There are 70,000 already in Turkey. There are thousands more are waiting across the border. The rebels in Aleppo are now talking about a war of attrition, a protracted fight. They say they that can't take and hold the city because they don't have the weapons to take down the fixed-wing aircraft. The Syrian military is doing everything it can to hold on to Aleppo, so it looks like a very long and very bloody fight.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deb Amos reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border. Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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