Syrian Protests Endure Despite Brutal Retaliation

At least six protesters were killed Friday in Syria. The protest movement there is two months old now, despite the most deadly government crackdown in the region since the Arab uprisings began. The United Nations says at least 850 people have been killed and thousands have been detained since the protests began. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from NPR's Kelly McEvers, who is monitoring the situation from Beirut, Lebanon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

At least six protesters were killed in Syria yesterday. The protest movement there is two months old now, despite the most deadly government crackdown in the region since the Arab uprisings began.

The United Nations says at least 850 people have been killed and thousands have been detained since the protests began.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring the uprisings in Syria. She is in Beirut nearby and joins us on the line.

I would never want to minimize six deaths, but at the same time, they do seem to be declining in volume when these protests were held afternoon prayers on Friday. Is there any change of strategy on behalf of the government or the protest movement?

KELLY MCEVERS: Well, the government definitely seems to be changing its narrative. As the protest movement gained momentum in recent weeks, Syrian officials were saying the demonstrations were being led by armed gangs and, you know, foreign infiltrators and, you know, they were using that as justification for using so much force and for frankly, for killing so many people. Only now are they saying that the protests are finally peaceful and they want them to allow them to go forward. Then late yesterday, Syrias minister of information came out and said the government is preparing to launch a national dialogue with opposition leaders in the coming days. The protesters though quickly rejected that idea. They said, you know, how can you have a dialogue with people who are mostly in jail or in hiding?

SIMON: And does that suggest that the proposal for a national dialogue isn't real?

MCEVERS: You know, the thing is the people the regime are reaching out to are part of Syria's, you know, long-standing opposition. These are lawyers and activists, people who've been willing to work within the system, you know, for years. To some degree, the protesters out in the streets are a different group. Theyre younger, theyre angrier and they're probably less likely to compromise. Also, I think the activists do have a point when they say you can't negotiate with people who are in jail, you know, members of both groups, the traditional opposition and the young activists are being detained.

Just last night, another long-standing human rights campaigner and lawyer, a woman was detained in the capital, Damascus, and is now being held in an undisclosed location. So they're seeing this gesture by the government really as little more than an attempt to appease the international community, to say look, you know, we're trying to talk to the opposition. Honestly, very few people think the regime is interested in the kinds of real reforms that would satisfy the protesters.

SIMON: And with 850 people estimated to be killed, is a little difficult to open what they call a dialogue after so many deaths?

MCEVERS: Exactly. I mean I think that's where, you know, what you're hearing from a lot of the opposition members at this point, they're just too much blood on the regime's hands right at this point for it to be trusted.

SIMON: Government says the army's pulling out several cities. Any indication of that?

MCEVERS: Well, you have to keep in mind that because foreign journalists are for the most part being kept out of Syria, it's very difficult for us to independently verify these kinds of claims. That said, you know, we every day are talking to residents of cities that have been centers of protests, and they tell us the tanks are still there, the snipers are still there, the plainclothes thugs are still there detaining and intimidating people, trying to keep them from protesting. Were even hearing reports in recent days that people who are getting detained are being forced to log into their Facebook accounts and if they or their friends have espoused anti-regime opinions, you know, they're being held even longer.

SIMON: NPR's Kelly McEvers, reporting from Beirut on the uprisings in Syria.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MCEVERS: Youre welcome.

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