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U.N. Presence Fails To Prevent Syrian Bloodshed

U.N. monitors in Syria leave their Damascus hotel on Wednesday on a mission. A day earlier, their U.N. colleagues were at the scene of a major clash in northern Syria that left more than 30 Syrians dead.
Louai Beshara
AFP/Getty Images
U.N. monitors in Syria leave their Damascus hotel on Wednesday on a mission. A day earlier, their U.N. colleagues were at the scene of a major clash in northern Syria that left more than 30 Syrians dead.

There was a deadly clash in northern Syria on Tuesday, but it was different than many other such episodes over the past 14 months of the Syrian uprising.

This time, United Nations monitors were watching. The monitors are in Syria to keep an eye on the government forces and the opposition, who are supposed to be observing a cease-fire and opening a dialogue.

But the trouble Tuesday began with a funeral the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

A man who was killed by Syrian security forces over the weekend was about to be buried. The funeral was held in a part of town that claims to be free — meaning it no longer considers itself under the control of the Syrian government.

It's held by anti-government rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. Still, the government's army and security forces maintain checkpoints in other parts of town.

It was these checkpoints that reportedly drew the attention of the U.N. monitors. Under the U.N. peace plan, the government's soldiers and security forces are supposed to pull out of cities and towns.

Funeral Turns Into A Protest

Residents of Khan Sheikhoun say U.N. monitors watched the funeral, which quickly turned into a protest against the government.

Emboldened by the monitors, protesters and rebels shouted insults at government soldiers.

The Syrian soldiers and security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire. Parts of the confrontation were captured on video that has been posted on YouTube, including one that shows a tangle of bodies falling to the ground. Then the film goes blank. Activists in Khan Sheikhoun say the man who shot the video was killed.

Amid the chaos, U.N. monitors went back to their cars. Then, an explosion went off, producing a huge cloud of white dust. The lead U.N. truck was mangled by the explosion.

Other U.N. vehicles were also damaged. The vehicles speed away from the scene, at least one of them running over bodies of the injured or dead.

Like so many confrontations in Syria, there are multiple versions of this story. Residents say government security forces launched a grenade at the UN truck. The government says it was a bomb planted by what it calls terrorists.

The UN would only say that it was a homemade bomb.

Death Toll Is More Than 30

The blast and the shooting that preceded have left more than 30 people dead, many of them civilians.

Another video uploaded by activists on YouTube shows young men with gruesome gunshot wounds at a makeshift field hospital.

People who oppose the government in Syria are often too afraid to go to government hospitals.

Journalists have generally been barred from reporting in Syria, and none of the videos could be independently verified. However, residents of the village have confirmed that rebels and government soldiers clashed in Khan Sheikhoun after the explosion. An army tank was set on fire by the rebels, according to the govenrment forces.

The situation was so volatile Tuesday that the U.N. monitors could not leave Khan Sheikhoun. They ended up staying the night in the village.

Residents say the monitors were able to negotiate a halt in the fighting Wednesday and that other monitors were allowed to come and pick them up.

One final video shows the destroyed U.N. trucks being towed away while the young boys of Khan Sheikhoun look on. Residents say soon thereafter, the tanks rolled back into town and started shooting again.

The U.N. mission in Syria has found that there is no peace for it to monitor. Rather, the hope is that it can create the peace. In some parts of Syria, the mere presence of monitors has brought a lull in the violence. But not this week.

One activist in Khan Sheikhoun, speaking in an interview over Skype, said he thought the monitors should leave for good. Before they came, the town was bad, he said. Now that they've pulled out, Khan Skeikhoun is burning.

Lava Selo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.