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At Least 13 Syrian Children Killed In Mortar Attack

There was fierce fighting around the Damascus airport in Syria on Tuesday, as well as more reported defections from the regime of President Bashar Assad. Kelly McEvers talks to Audie Cornish.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour in Syria, with some tragic news from the fighting and word of a possible defection. First, at least 13 children were killed when a mortar round hit a school today. There are differing reports of who was responsible for the explosion and NPR's Kelly McEvers is reporting on this for us from Beirut.

And Kelly, to start, what have you learned about this explosion at the school?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We know that it happened in an area for refugees, refugees from when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, but also internally displaced people from the recent conflict. This is a civilian area. This is an area that has not seen any fighting before in this conflict. And we know that a mortar round hit a school. At least 13 children were killed. The government's saying it's as many as 29.

The government blames this mortar round on terrorists - that's their term for anyone who's fighting against them. We do know that rebel fighters have used mortar rounds in Damascus in recent days, but the rebel sympathizers accuse the regime of this attack. They say the regime uses attacks like these to stir up hatred among civilians. So at this point, we just don't know who's responsible.

CORNISH: Now, there were also reports yesterday about a fairly high profile government spokesman from Syria going to London. Now, is it clear what he was doing? Was he, in effect, defecting or did he leave for some other reason?

MCEVERS: You know, it is still unclear whether he resigned and fled, whether he was sacked or whether he defected. What we do - his name was Jihad Makdisi. He was a pretty high profile spokesman. He was educated in London. He had served in London as a diplomat. We know that a few months ago, he publicly said that the Syrian government would never use chemical weapons on its own people.

Well, Syria hasn't actually acknowledged that is has chemical weapons, so, you know, the official line is that he was fired for speaking out of turn. But then, some people say that's just the regime's, you know, kind of attempt to scramble for an explanation for why he actually decided to leave the regime and sort of quietly defected over the weekend.

What's really interesting is that his leaving has sparked a real debate among opposition types in Syria, you know, about what to do with these types of peoples once the regime - if the regime does fall. You know, some people are calling for this guy basically to hang. Others are saying, wait a second, you know, he could be useful. He could provide us with some good, you know, intelligence about the regime.

Still, other people are saying, you know, that's fine, but just don't think you'll get a job in the new Syria. I think the whole debate sort of shows you how difficult it's going to be if and when this regime falls, to deal with, you know, members who used to serve in it.

CORNISH: At this point, Kelly, is it your sense that there's real momentum building against Assad?

MCEVERS: You know, we are seeing sharper rhetoric from the West. You know, now the U.S. and its allies are warning Assad in very sharp terms that they will take action if he employs chemical or biological weapons against his own people in this fight. We've also today - you know, NATO just approved the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries in Turkey right along the Syrian border.

These can shoot down Syrian planes or Syrian missiles. NATO has been quick to say that these are defensive, but, you know, the message is pretty clear. We see the rebels making gains in Damascus, but also in other regions, too, you know, coming very close to airports in other regions. But I think some of the most interesting comments are actually those coming out of Russia.

A Russian commentator, who's close to the Russian foreign ministry, says that on recent visits to Damascus, Russian officials can see that President Assad believes he's trapped at this point. Basically, if he tries to leave Syria peacefully, defect, to leave the regime, that he'll be killed by his own people. And if he stays, he'll be killed by the rebels. So that suggests that he's sort of in this - that it's a fight to the death and one that could go on for a very long time.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers. She spoke to us from Beirut. Kelly, thank you.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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