Protesters Take To The Streets In Syria

Despite a massive country-wide security crackdown, thousands of Syrians took to the streets in several cities and towns Friday, calling for the overthrow of the government.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Syria today, thousands of protestors took to the streets. That's despite official statements urging people to stay home and a violent government crackdown in recent weeks. A leading human rights group in Syria says 24 people were killed today, including two children.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring the situation from nearby Beirut and sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS: The demonstration started in the early afternoon, after Friday prayers. The main aim of the protest was to show solidarity with those who've been killed in recent weeks, especially in the besieged southern city of Daraa.

(Soundbite of chanting protestors)

MCEVERS: Opposition leaders distributed videos like this one to the media, showing protests in towns and cities around the country. Protesters numbered in the hundreds and low thousands. This video reportedly was taken in a section of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Demonstrators reported being hit with tear gas as they left Friday prayers. But then a rainstorm diminished the effect of the gas and people continued demonstrating. To heaven we're going, martyrs in our millions, they chanted.

Elsewhere, like the coastal city of Latakia, protesters say five people were injured by gunshots. And the worst might have been in and around Daraa. Opposition leaders say at least 15 people were killed by security forces as protesters tried to march into the city.

The Syrian government maintains protests are being led by what it calls extremist terrorist gangs.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: On Syrian State TV, a man confessed he was paid to set fire to a police headquarters in Daraa. While he speaks, the screen shows images of four dead men who've clearly been beaten and shot.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The implication is that anti-regime elements are responsible for the deaths.

Yesterday, Turkey sent high-level envoys to Damascus to advise Syrian leaders on how to implement reforms. After Iran, Turkey is one of Syria's closest allies in the region.

Josh Landis is a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. He says Turkey would like to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be replaced by a moderate Islamist democratic government. But Turkey and Syria's other neighbors want that to happen in a nonviolent way.

Professor JOSHUA LANDIS (Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma): Turkey is the important neighbor here and the United States should be covering, should be sitting down with Turkey constantly. This is the key because Turkey is the one country that has some influence over Syria at this moment.

MCEVERS: Landis says the problem is that no one knows who the Syrian opposition is. The decentralized nature of the movement has helped it survive, he says, because that way it can elude arrest. But it also makes it hard to imagine how such a group could lead a massive governmental transition.

Sarkis Naoum is a columnist for a Lebanese newspaper. He says the only way out for Assad now is to implement the kinds of democratic reforms that will eventually see him lose power.

Mr. SARKIS NAOUM (Columnist, An Nahar Newspaper): They should have multiple party system. They should have real democracy. They should have general elections. Everybody has the right to compete, just to present to the population something detailed.

MCEVERS: You think that this is at all possible?

Mr. MAOUM: No. I don't think so. But sometimes we should believe in miracles.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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