Syrian Forces Move Into Northern Town

Syrian forces advance into a northern town now all but empty after most residents fled earlier violence. Farther south, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In Syria today, more protests and more bloodshed. Thousands took to the streets in multiple cities to call for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Human rights activists say more than 30 people were killed by state security forces. And in the northern province, people's fears were confirmed as the army swept in. Thousands escaped by crossing the nearby border with Turkey.

For its part, the Syrian government still insists that armed gangs are to blame for the violence.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring developments in Syria from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: Syria's crackdown on the protest movement widened today. The government announced a military assault on the town of Jisr al-Shughur to restore order - burning farm fields and arresting and beating anyone they could find, according to a resident reached by phone. But many had already left, escaping on back roads and dirt paths to the border with Turkey. Four thousand have crossed.

Syrian television news didn't report the exodus to Turkey but stated that the military assault had been delayed because local people insisted the troops stop for food and chocolate.

(Soundbite of music video)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

AMOS: But instead of showing pictures from the northern province, state TV broadcast a highly produced music video showing soldiers fighting and carrying out maneuvers while holding Syrian flags. Later in the day, state media reported gunmen opened fire on a police station near Jisr al-Shughur.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMOS: Residents reached by phone say army tanks shelled the nearby town, killing 10 people, after protesters burned government buildings there.

(Soundbite of chanting)

AMOS: Farther south, thousands of Syrians took to the streets again after Friday prayers. The largest demonstration was reported in the city of Hama, the scene of a now infamous massacre of regime opponents nearly 30 years ago.

Today, residents said the crowd numbered up to 200,000, marching and chanting for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Videos posted from Hama showed a mass of people on the streets.

Last Friday, in Hama, at least 60 people were killed by security forces, according to activists. But today, one man - who did not give his name -said the security police had withdrawn from Hama.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: There were no security forces, he said. We can't even see a traffic cop. The protest was very civil, asking for regime change, he said.

He held up the phone when the crowds began to cheer and beep their car horns.

(Soundbite of car horn)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He said security police removed a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, rather than have the protestors tear it down as they've done elsewhere in the country. Today was the anniversary of Assad's death 11 years ago.

This was the largest protest to date in the center of the country as the army focused on putting down the rebellion in the north.

Turkish officials expect more Syrian refugees to cross the border in the coming days, and they're preparing more tent camps.

Turkey's leaders were slow to criticize Syria's crackdown, but statements today show that Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically changed his views. He called the Syrian response inhumane, and he personally attacked Maher al-Assad, the president's brother - he heads the elite unit in charge of suppressing the rebellion.

Just a few months ago, the Turkish prime minister called President Assad his personal friend. Now, these friends are further apart than ever. Turkey's leader calls the attack on civilians savage.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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