In Syria, Protesters Mark 'Children's Friday'

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Protesters brave the streets of Syrian cities amid an ongoing government crackdown that has left more than 1,000 dead in the past two months. Friday's demonstrations are dedicated to the children who've been killed since the uprising began. NPR's Deborah Amos talks to Robert Siegel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Syria today, another deadly confrontation between protestors and security forces. After Friday prayers, Syrians rushed into the streets calling for the ousting of their president. In the city of Hama, more than 50,000 Syrians marched, that's according to human right activists who say that snipers and security police were waiting for the demonstrators. The activists say at least 27 were killed in Hama, but information from Syria is difficult to confirm.

The international media are barred from the country. And today, the government shut down Internet service.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring events from neighboring Turkey and she joins us now. And, Deborah, is this an escalation of the protest movement in Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it was the largest protest so far in the city of Hama, and that's according to Syrians who could get calls through today. Protest organizers dedicated the day to the more than 30 children who've been killed, and that number has been confirmed by the U.N.'s Agency for Children, including a boy who was reportedly tortured to death and returned to his parents for burial a last week.

So, many of the protesters were out because they wanted to dedicate the day to the memory of the children. But the large turnout in Hama is significant for another reason. So far, the protests there have been small because of a historical memory.

Back in 1982, when Syria was on the brink of a civil war - the government then was challenged by the Muslim Brotherhood - there was a crack down there and that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. Much of Hama was leveled, so the city has become a symbol of state violence in the Arab world. Now, this new generation of protesters, they are challenging the government again in Hama.

Another reason for the large turnout today, for the first time since the protest began, opponents of the Syrian government, mostly exiled dissidents, met in Turkey. And they called for the ousting of the president and pledged to help coordinate the uprising.

SIEGEL: Now, I wonder how that meeting in Turkey plays in Syria, since the Syrian government has been claiming all along that this protest movement is coordinated and controlled by outsiders. And here there actually was a meeting of Syrians outside.

AMOS: Yes, these were mostly exiles. This is the older generation of dissidents.

Now, on the day before the meeting, a young activist who planned these street demonstrations, they signaled their support for this gathering because they agreed that it's time to put a public face on the opposition. This has been a leaderless revolution. A few of them did make it to Turkey. They smuggled themselves across the border. They were the stars of that gathering and they made it clear that they are in charge.

What they were doing is offering a plan for a transition after Bashar al-Assad. But they are a long way from toppling this regime.

Now, what the dissidents want is for the international communities to step up the pressure, as the inside organizers continue every Friday to get people to go out on the streets.

SIEGEL: One more question about the Syrian opposition meeting in Turkey. The Turkish government has been very close to the Assad regime. There's a lot of trade between the two countries. There's open borders between the two countries. Was hosting this meeting a sign that perhaps Turkey is taking a different view of Syria?

AMOS: That was how the regime in Damascus saw it. But the official Turkish position is we are a democratic country and we welcome all groups. But it was a subtle signal and you can see that Turkish rhetoric is shifting ever so slightly.

Turkey, since the beginning of this uprising, has been urging Bashar al-Assad to reform. Yesterday, the Turkish foreign minister said Turkey is one of the countries most likely to be affected; it's not possible to stay detached. And he said sometimes friends tell friends bitter truths. And the Turkish message is: you must reform before it's too late.

SIEGEL: NPR's Deborah Amos on the Turkish border with Syria. Deb, take care and thanks.

AMOS: Thank you.

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