Free Syrian Army Linked To Damascus Attacks

The violence in Syria continues to escalate as another massacre was reported this week. The gunfire and explosions has spread to Damascus, where heavy shooting and explosions were reported on Friday night. U.N. monitors issued a preliminary report on Saturday that includes disturbing details for a country that is technically in a ceasefire, according to NPR's Deborah Amos.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Support for Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, may be further deteriorating. That's after Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said his country would be glad to see Assad step down if most Syrians agreed. Russia's been one of the Syrian regime's staunchest supporters.

In Syria itself, another night of gunfire and explosions, some of it in the capital, Damascus. NPR's Deborah Amos is there and with me now.

And, Deb, we've seen reports of fighting in the southern city of Daraa where the uprising began. Pictures emerged from that city of shelling today. But I'll ask about the reports of fighting in the capital, that seems to be a relatively new development.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It is. We went out with the U.N. monitors today. They were on the street to assess those reports of heavy fighting three neighborhoods close to the heart of the capital. We could hear the shooting and see smoke rising from these explosions when we drove through the city on Friday. And it seems that the Free Syrian Army, this loosely organized units of army deserters, now have a higher profile in Damascus. And it also appears that the army was out in force willing to use tanks in the capital to put down this rebellion.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

AMOS: This is how the U.N. monitors were welcomed in a little neighborhood called Maliha. It's poor, in the northeast of the city. It was very tense when we arrived. Residents said the army rolled in around 11:00 p.m. last night. And we could see scorched cars, broken windows in the mosque. We also went to a police station today after we heard reports of a car bomb that killed three policemen. The local people there said it was al-Qaida. That's impossible to confirm. But I can assure you, it was a hot time in the capital in the last two days.

RAZ: Deb, is it new, or is it unusual to have such a heavy presence of these rebel groups, the Syrian Free Army, in Damascus?

AMOS: It's been growing over time. Now, the FSA has a bigger presence in the protest cities outside the capital - in Homs, in Idlib in the north. Such a large presence is new here. And activists say it's because more of them support the FSA because of thousands of deaths from the government crackdowns. There have been two horrifying civilian massacres in the past two weeks alone. And protesters in the capital say that government security services are more willing to shoot them when they are demonstrating on the street.

And there's one other thing that's happening here, and that is the FSA has said that it will eventually bring the fight to Damascus. It's all over Facebook pages, and the security services read those pages.

RAZ: Deb, I want to ask you about one of those massacres. Of course, the U.N. monitoring team is there in part because of this alleged massacre in a town called al-Qubeir. Do we have any more details about what happened there?

AMOS: Well, the U.N. is working on it, and they already say that finding out exactly what happened in this tiny isolated farming hamlet is going to be difficult. The bodies were buried before they got there. They have conflicting reports from the people who arrived when we got there from the surrounding villages who said, those are our relatives.

Now, outside, human rights groups have been documenting and finding out the names. The human rights contingent of the U.N. monitors are going to go back and do some additional interviewing, but I think it's going to be a while on this one. They were camped out at that village for 36 hours, stopped at an army checkpoint. Local civilians warned them, threatened them not to come in.

So when they got there, they could see that the buildings were singed, and they could see blood on the floor, dead animals, fresh graves in the mosque, but there were no bodies to actually look at like they could in a massacre that they investigated two weeks ago. So I don't know if they're going to be able to tell us exactly what happened in that village.

RAZ: Deb, we should point out it's unusual for journalists to get a visa to Syria. You are in Damascus for another seven or so days. You've been there many times. You've covered many wars, not just in Syria, but elsewhere. What's your sense of what the city is like right now?

AMOS: It's so different, Guy, than when I was here six month ago. This was an alive city. People were out at night. They were in the cafes, in the restaurants. At night, people go home and it's time for the army to take over. I have also been told by a number of residents that I've known for a while here that late at night, there's a new militia force on the street, the shabiha, which we've heard a lot about. It means ghosts.

They've been accused of being part of those massacres that we've been reporting on for the past two days, and they are setting up their own checkpoints. And the city's residents here are quite afraid of them. They seem to be able to act with impunity. And if they don't like the looks of you in one of these checkpoints, you're in big trouble here. That's all very new in this capital. And you feel the jitters here.

RAZ: That's NPR's Deborah Amos reporting for us from the Syrian capital Damascus. Deb, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you, Guy.

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