Syrian Forces Tighten Grip On Residents Of Homs

The Syrian government has been rounding up protesters across the country, and the crackdown has been particularly harsh in Homs — the country's third-largest city. Soldiers have occupied the city and are searching house-to-house for those opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the midst of what's being called the Arab Spring, Syria has not let up in its crackdown of protesters. The government has been particularly harsh in Homs, a city that's been one of the centers of nationwide protest. Soldiers have occupied that city and are searching house to house for those opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad.

NPR's Kelly McEvers joins us on the line from Lebanon, just across the border from Homs.

And Kelly, what more are people telling you about what's happening there in Syria?

KELLY MCEVERS: One man we spoke to on the phone, who had just fled Homs, says that that city right now - the way he described was - he said it's a place that separate from Earth. He said it's just unworldly what's going on there. He says that when security forces come into the city, they strike with their tanks first. They don't even bother using their rifles, says sometimes they even shoot from helicopters in certain neighborhoods.

He says there's places in the city where bodies are lying in the streets. People try to remove the bodies, but they can't even go out of their homes. He says they're putting men and women in separate rooms and interrogating them.

Another man told us that people who even try to hang their laundry out their windows, from second-floor windows, get shot at. He says that schools are closed, the province is basically paralyzed. They're running out of bread and salt, basics.

MONTAGNE: And, Kelly, it does sound like the crackdown is intensifying.

MCEVERS: You know, it's hard to say with absolute certainty, because we are not allowed to enter Syria to verify the reports. But what I can tell you is that residents and activists are telling us that the military is entering more and more cities, detaining more and more people. Activists are saying that now it's up to 10,000 people who've been detained or have disappeared. They're saying this is forcing many activists into hiding, which, of course, makes it harder for them to organize and to get information out.

Phone lines are being cut. Internet connections are being are being cutoff. Even satellite phones now are being jammed. This, of course, is troubling, because this has been the main way for the opposition to get information out, you know, through Skype calls and uploaded videos. Without that, the world will have no idea what's going on inside Syria.

MONTAGNE: And the government, what does it say it's doing?

MCEVERS: A Syrian government spokeswoman - who's also a close advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - told The New York Times yesterday that, you know, she's fairly confident this whole thing will end soon. She, like Syrian officials, have been, for several weeks, characterizing these protesters as not, you know, reformers or people who are seeking, you know, more freedoms, but rather a combination of - what she said - fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers and ex-convicts. And that's why, you know, the government says it's using so much violence.

Of course, activists say the security approach to the problem is no way to solve it. There's no way you can occupy an entire country. You know, security forces might move into a few cities, but with then once they leave, the protests continue popping up. So at some point, activists say there's going to have to be something beyond the security solution. There'll have to be a political solution.

MONTAGNE: Although one wonders if a political solution is likely at this point.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean, the Syrian government says - the same spokeswoman says that, you know, the government's been reaching out to the opposition. But they're mainly talking to the so-called sort of old guard, opposition figures who've been around for a long time and who've always kind of been willing to work within the system.

The question is: Will that satisfy this newer opposition? I'm talking about the young protest organizers who are scattered around the country, and people who've since been radicalized by this violence at the hands of the government. How will they be satisfied? Will they be satisfied with any anything but revenge? Revenge in the form of, you know, Assad stepping down, which is seeming more and more unlikely? Or in the form of more violence?

Either way, it's really not a pretty picture.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Lebanon, just across the border from Homs, Syria.

Thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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