Syrian Army Escalates Crack Down In Homs

In Syria, army tanks have swept into the country's third largest city Homs. It's part of an assault on heavily populated residential neighborhoods. The army assault appears to mark an escalation of tactics to crush the protest movement in Homs.

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In Syria, army tanks have swept into the country's third largest city, Homs. It's part of an assault on heavily populated residential neighborhoods.�The sustained violence began last weekend. At least 40 people have reportedly been killed. The army assault appears to mark an escalation of tactics to crush the protest movement in Homs. NPR's Deborah Amos was recently in Syria. She's now tracking events from Beirut, Lebanon.

Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

KELLY: So what is the latest that we know about what is actually happening in Homs today?

AMOS: Activists call this crackdown savage. And residents that I've talked to say it was brutal. By any measure, it's been a very violent 48 hours. There's been continuous gunfire for two nights. The tanks moved in during the early hours of Wednesday, when the city was essentially still asleep.

There are reports of at least three buildings that were flattened by tank shells, shops on fire, snipers on the rooftops. So ambulances couldn't move and medical professionals have been overwhelmed. The mosques and homes have put out a call for blood donations.

The government media have said almost nothing about this assault. One pro-government newspaper reported that troops had swept into the city to arrest armed men.

KELLY: And I guess it's worth pointing out it's very difficult to know what exactly is going on there. No outside observers are getting into and out of the city at this point.

AMOS: Well, and even residents were too afraid to look out their windows. I talked to a man yesterday who'd taken his family to Tartus, a city on the coast and he was calling into his neighbors. So the details are very sketchy from Homs.

KELLY: Deb, remind us why this one city has become such a flashpoint for the violence in Syria.

AMOS: Homs is Syria's third largest city. And it represents the historic sectarian and ethnic mix in the country. There are Muslims, Alawites, Sunnis and Christians in Homs. It's a manufacturing town. There's many middle class neighborhoods there.

The spark for the violence has been reported as sectarian. There was a clash between Alawites, they're loyal to President Bashar al-Assad; and Sunnis, who are leading the protest movement in Homs. And there was a specific incident, a kidnapping. Three Alawites were kidnapped after they came to a Sunni mosque and they were taunting worshipers. This is according to activists and residents there.

Three bullet-ridden corpses were discovered in a garbage dump and they were Alawites. That set off this terrible series of revenge attacks by Alawite gangs.

Now, the elders, Sunnis and Alawites, respected people in town, tried to come together to calm the city. But the army moved in and so Homs is now besieged.

KELLY: Now, today, Friday, is the big day of protest in Syria. What are you hearing about demonstrations?

AMOS: Well, you know, a week ago, the city of Homs had one of the largest peaceful protests since the uprising began. It's very unclear what will happen today. But across the country, the protest movement has called today National Unity Day and dedicated the protests to the people of Homs.

The city's important to the movement for many reasons, but one is because Homs is known as the place with the best sense of humor in the country. A funny song that became an anthem for the protestors was produced in Homs.

And there's been these videos mocking the government. One has protestors firing weapons made out of vegetables. There was an eggplant rocket launcher. And that was an answer to the government's charges that it's armed gangs that lead the protest movement.

KELLY: Deb, just quickly, you mentioned a national day of unity. Is there any prospect for dialogue?

AMOS: President Bashar Al-Assad has promised reforms. He hasn't delivered. There's been a mass media campaign in support for the president. A lot of people say it's a waste of money and out of touch at a time when people are dying on the streets. The protest movements say they will not talk to the government unless the violence stops.

So we are still at a standoff, and there are plenty of Syrians who are watching, sitting on the fence, don't support the president, don't support the protest movement. But the brutality in Homs actually will be noticed by those people.

KELLY: Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

KELLY: We've been speaking with NPR's Deborah Amos about events in Homs in Syria. She's tracking events from Beirut.

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