ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We turn now to the news out of Syria. People living in the town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon, say Syrian security forces continue to crack down on anti-government protests there. They report that tanks and artillery have been firing at houses and at mosques with at least eight people killed yesterday, many while trying to enter Lebanon.
In recent weeks, Talkalakh has become a gathering point for protesters opposing the Syrian government.
NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Lebanon and has made several trips to the border. She joins us now from Beirut. And, Kelly, what are you hearing about Talkalakh today?
KELLY McEVERS: Residents in Talkalakh are telling us that soldiers and plainclothes militiamen, that they call Shabiha, are firing at houses, they're shelling mosques, they're shooting out water tanks that are used by residents, and they're occupying hospitals so that injured people will be too afraid to seek help.
Now, this is not the first time that the town has been under siege, but it does sound to us like it's the worst attack so far. Hundreds if not thousands of people are trying to get into Lebanon from Talkalakh. As they crossed the border yesterday, a firefight actually broke out and that's when you saw even more casualties. Now, one of these was reportedly a Lebanese soldier.
SIEGEL: A firefight between whom? Who's firing at whom here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
McEVERS: Well, that's the real question here. And it's one that we can't answer with exact certainty, mainly because foreign journalists are banned from entering most of Syria.
What we do know is that what the residents of Talkalakh are telling us. They're saying that the firefight was between members of the army. On the one side, you had commanders ordering soldiers to fire on residents. And on the other side, you had soldiers who were refusing to do so.
The Syrian government has a totally different version. They say the firefight was between armed militants, who had weapons they'd smuggled in from Lebanon, firing upon government soldiers.
We don't know exactly which side is true. It's probably true that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But if that's so, it would be a disturbing development. It would mean that, you know, these people who oppose the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad are starting to look more like an armed resistance than a peaceful protest movement.
SIEGEL: And is what you're hearing from the people in Talkalakh, whom you're talking to, is it typical of what's going on throughout Syria? Does it go against the grain or contrary to what the Syrians are saying they're doing?
McEVERS: The government tried to change the narrative over the weekend and make it sound like, you know, the violence is over, the army is pulling out of these towns, these peaceful protests are being allowed to go forward. But what we're hearing from towns around Syria is that this cycle of protest and crackdown that's been going on now for two months continues.
Talkalakh is part of Syria's, you know, Sunni north, which has never really been all that pro-government. And that's mainly because the government is ruled by the Alawites, which is a minority group that adheres to a branch of Shiite Islam. There are other towns in the Sunni north that are protesting, but also the towns on the Alawite coast, and towns in the Sunni south, and towns in the regime's - suburbs of the regime's stronghold of Damascus are protesting, as well.
The one place you are not seeing protest yet is Syria's second largest city, Aleppo. It's a mixed city that has prospered in recent years during Syria's economic opening. For now, it seems like the middle class of Aleppo is waiting to see which side will gain momentum. Are the protesters going to get their way and force the regime to fall, or is the regime going to hang onto power? What most analysts tell us is that, you know, the way Aleppo goes, so goes Syria.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you about one other thing. Over the weekend, there was a big Palestinian protest from the Syrian side of the border into the Golan Heights, which Israel controls. How does that fit into this whole picture, do you think, of protests throughout Syria?
McEVERS: You know, this was actually a protest that was led by Palestinians and actually Lebanese from several different places, not just from Syria. So here in Lebanon, people also marched to the border with Israel. But, you know, the Golan Heights has long been a peaceful place - the sort of tacit agreement between Syria and Israel. And now it's pretty clear that the Syrian government allowed these protesters to head toward the border.
The U.S. government today accused the Syrian government of doing so, as a way to turn attention away from its crackdown on its protest movement, and try to stir up trouble with Israel as a way to, you know, divert the attention of the international community that's been pretty critical of the Syrian regime so far.
SIEGEL: Kelly McEvers in Beirut, thank you.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
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