Syrian Forces Stage Raids In Rebellious Central City

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Syrian security forces stage new raids in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad. Residents report shooting throughout the night and into Wednesday morning, with several deaths confirmed. The operation was launched as Syria postponed a planned visit to Damascus by the secretary general of the Arab League, which has been pushing for a halt to military operations against protesters.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: In Syria today, opposition activists say more than a dozen people were killed by military and security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The continued crackdown comes as Damascus took a hard line against international criticism, and postponed a visit by the head of the Arab League.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: In the face of growing international condemnation and economic pressure, the Assad regime today showed a defiant face, pouring more troops and tanks into areas of protest.


KENYON: This internet video is said to come from Duma, a suburb of Damascus. It showed loyalist forces firing down a narrow street as demonstrators yelled back at them and scurried for cover.

The regime has been at pains to show the capitol itself is devoid of unrest and the military has cracked down heavily on protests in the suburbs, according to activists and residents.


KENYON: Other videos appear to show tanks moving into Homs province in central Syria, a center of opposition to the regime. This video features soldiers in uniform hitting bound civilians with rifle butts and kicking them.

Activists with the local coordinating committee said, besides the Homs assault, security forces swept through Hama and north to Idlib province, apparently searching for the former attorney general of Hama, who publicly resigned to protest the regime's violence against civilians.

Syria analyst Peter Harling, with the International Crisis Group, says the Assad regime is fighting for its survival. Speaking from Cairo, he said the government would like to redefine this popular protest as an armed Islamist uprising like the one Bashar al-Assad's father crushed some 40 years ago.

PETER HARLING: Protestors have faced escalating violence on the part of the regime and, in fact, they've shown great restraint themselves. The regime has been trying to provoke the protest movement, which has been, by and large, peaceful, into an armed response.

KENYON: As the bloodshed continued, a visit by the Arab League secretary general was abruptly postponed at Syria's request. Details of the League's peace initiative, including a ceasefire, release of political prisoners and possibly elections, were leaked to Arab news organizations. An Arab League official was quoted as saying the visit may be rescheduled for Saturday.

The diplomatic rhetoric, meanwhile, continues to escalate. France's foreign minister accused Damascus of committing crimes against humanity. The US State Department today defended Ambassador Robert Ford's strong comments posted on the embassy's Facebook page. Ford dismissed the government's claim that it is fighting armed gangs and terrorists and added that the deaths of some security personnel in no way justified what he called the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protestors.

Today, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had this to say about Ford's comments.

VICTORIA NULAND: Ambassador Ford is courageously calling it like it is in Syria and standing with those Syrians who want to live a better life and have a more democratic future.

KENYON: Analysts say, tough talk notwithstanding, the international community has a limited number of options it can use against the regime.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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