Syrian Forces Clash With Protesters

In Syria, it was the bloodiest day yet in five weeks of anti-government protests, with many dead after security forces opened fire. Anti-government groups called this day "great Friday" — an escalation of the challenge to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Syria, this was the bloodiest day yet in five weeks of anti-government protests. Amnesty International reports that at least 75 people were killed by security forces. Anti-government groups dubbed it great Friday, and the day brought an escalation in the challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

NPR's Deborah Amos monitored the day's events from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thousands of demonstrators poured out of mosques after Friday prayers in towns and cities across Syria, and almost everywhere, cell phones were held in the air to record the protest and the response.

From a barren room in Beirut, Rami Nakhle, a Syrian social media activist, downloaded the day's events, getting hundreds of messages and videos that he's sent on to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for an international audience.

(Soundbite of demonstrators chanting in foreign language)

Mr. RAMI NAKHLE: They are facing thugs, actually. When you hear this tense and this voice, I start to know they are facing thugs.

AMOS: A protest at Duma, on the outskirts of Damascus; another in Homs, north of the capital, the Syrian security forces deployed last night and used live fire to disperse the crowds.

Mr. NAKHLE: They started (unintelligible) hundreds really, and they know there is thousands of (unintelligible).

AMOS: Eyewitnesses called in to Arab satellite television stations all day to describe the violence. The police opened fire, said one caller. We were peaceful with no weapons. The wounded were taken to houses to be treated because the police surrounded the hospitals.

Throughout the day, messages and videos came into Nakhle's computer.

Mr. NAKHLE: OK. They topple the statue of Hafez al-Assad and - in Al-Sayedah Zeinab(ph).

AMOS: He's talking about Sayedah Zeinab, a slum near the capital, and the grainy cell phone video shows an angry crowd defacing the statue of the president's late father.

Mr. NAKHLE: They talked to us and I'm still receiving live reports. No one published about Tartous.

AMOS: Tartous on the coast and then protests in the north and villages all the way to the Iraqi border. So many places that a Syrian writing on Twitter said he had trouble finding them all on a map.

In Daraa, in the south, thousands gathered and were joined by thousands more from the surrounding villages who walked through army checkpoints. Daraa is where the protest movement began.

Professor Hilal Hesham at the American University of Beirut says Daraa has become a symbol of the failure of Syria's security services when children were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti.

Professor HILAL HESHAM (American University of Beirut): They removed their fingernails.

AMOS: These are 13-year-olds.

Prof. HESHAM: Yes, yes. They tortured them for writing on walls: down with the regime. Their families went crazy, and that started the upheaval in Syria.

AMOS: Today, the uprising took another turn when local organizing committees issued a list of demands, which included an end to the violence against protesters, official mourning for those who have died and a democratic political system with a presidential election.

It's another challenge to President Bashar al-Assad. The protests are growing larger but have yet to reach the capital.

Karim Makdisi, a political analyst in Beirut, says the Syrian president can still count on support in Damascus, the business community, some minority groups who worry that chaos means more violence and a civil war.

Mr. KARIM MAKDISI (Political Analyst): I still think that there is a large segment of the Syrian population that would gladly embrace a kind of stability with serious reform rather than total change.

AMOS: But the death count today makes it all the harder, he says.

Mr. MAKDISI: If this continues for the days and weeks ahead and escalates, and the regime continues to respond heavy-handedly towards people, then I think that might change, and the tipping point will come sooner rather than later.

AMOS: Tonight, in the Syrian capital of Damascus, eyewitnesses contacted by cell phone say there are tanks in the streets and snipers in some neighborhoods. There will be funerals across the country tomorrow.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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