Funerals Begin For Syrian Protesters

Mass funerals are expected in several Syrian cities Saturday for those killed by government security forces during protests on Friday. Human rights groups say at least 100 people were killed; the biggest single-day death toll in Syria's six-week-old uprising. Host Scott Simon talks with Deb Amos.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SIMON: That's said to be the sound of Syrian forces firing live rounds at demonstrators yesterday. Human rights groups say that at least 100 people were killed. The biggest single-day death toll in Syria's six-week old uprising.

Yesterday, President Obama issued a statement condemning the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators, and the accused Syrian president, Bashar Assad, of seeking help from Iran.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring events in Syria from Beirut. Deb, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And there should be funerals today, yes, for people killed yesterday, and that will create its own spectacle and concern.

AMOS: Yes, indeed. There has been this pattern each week. Protestors are killed, and then the funerals become another rally. And this time the deaths are spread across the country, even to the outskirts of the capital, which has not seen mass protest so far.

There are 18 funerals in the city of Homs. It's the third largest city in Syria. And in Homs, there are reports that more people died there because they had to be treated in private homes. The police had surrounded the hospitals and were arresting anyone trying to get treatment.

SIMON: So there's the makings of another series of confrontations, and more deaths perhaps.

AMOS: It doesn't look, Scott, like either side is backing down, and there are already wire reports of the security forces firing at mourners in at least one funeral today. The government has signaled that no protests will be tolerated.

Friday was a very tough crackdown. The security police opened fire as soon as some of the crowds walked out of the mosques. In one video you can see people walking with olive branches and then they scatter when the shooting started.

The Syrian government's official like is, we have started reforms and there's no more reason to protest. But the anti-government groups have been able to get more people on the street every week.

SIMON: And what do they want? What are they calling for?

AMOS: Well, for the first time, a group that calls itself the Local Organizing Committee released a set of demands, and that includes ending the violence against protestors and an investigation into the deaths. But there's also an outline for a transition to a democratic government with a presidential election.

But, you know, most of those people going out for the protests, it's pretty simple for them. They want freedom they say, and they call for dignity. Many of them are just fed up with the heavy hand of the security police. Remember, these protests started because children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti on the wall.

SIMON: Deb, and when President Obama says that Iran is helping Syria crack down on the protests, is there any evidence to support that?

AMOS: Well, he said it, but he didn't really give details, so it's not really clear what that means. However, I've talked to Syrians who say that they - the Syrians are using some of the same tactics that the Iranians used to crack down on the Green Revolution after last year's elections.

SIMON: And President Assad shows no sign of change?

AMOS: Well, regime survival is the top priority, and I think the president has tried to show that he is still invested in reforms. He fired two governors. He listed the emergency law. He still does have wide support in Damascus and Aleppo. Those are the two largest cities. It's the autocrat's dilemma. If he gives in, he appears to be weak, and if he doesn't then the protests only grow.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thanks, Scott.

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