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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. In this part of the program, Syria and whether the largely peaceful protest movement there could take up arms. There are reports that an increasing number of soldiers are quitting the army and joining up with anti-government protesters.

Those reports come from the central city of Homs and surrounding towns, an area that has been a center of anti-government sentiment. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS: The turning point for Homs was April 17th. Protesters staged this massive sit-in at a main square in the city marked by a clock tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCEVERS: Security forces later killed scores of people. But Homs vowed to continue, turning funerals into protests and taking to the streets nearly every day. Then the army moved in, like it did in so many other cities and towns around Syria. Hassan Abdelkarim al-Hamad was a second lieutenant. He couldn't believe what he saw.

HASSAN ABDELKARIM AL-HAMAD: (Through Translator) They brought in a bulldozer to take the bodies away. And after that, they brought in big water trucks to wash away the blood. And just actually seeing this just did something to me.

MCEVERS: At one point, Hamad's commander ordered him to fire at protesters. Hamad said no. His commander said Hamad would be transferred down to the southern Syrian city of Daraa. The commander ordered three armed guards to go along.

AL-HAMAD: (Through Translator) I knew that my time would come. I mean, what was the point of sending three armed guards with me? They would kill me on the way, or if I said no, they would kill me now?

MCEVERS: So Hamad went AWOL and eventually fled here to northern Lebanon, just a half-hour drive from Homs. Now, he says he sneaks back into Homs nearly every day, doing whatever he can to protect the protesters. He's coy about what exactly protecting the protesters means. He denies he's a member of the Syrian Free Army, a group of defectors that's led by a commander-in-hiding and publishes statements online.

Hamad says for now, the protest movement should remain peaceful. Otherwise, it will feed into the regime's narrative that the anti-government movement is actually an Islamist insurgency.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: At this mosque in northern Lebanon, just across the border from Syria, people from Homs clamor to get their names on the list for donations of food, bedding and clothing. One woman sits on the side of the road and waits for a ride. She left Homs just a few days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The people, she says, meaning the activists and defected soldiers, do try to protect us from the army. But their guns are not enough.

Shakib al-Jabri is a Syrian activist based in Lebanon who's in daily contact with his counterparts in Homs. He describes the defection-protection cycle this way.

SHAKIB AL-JABRI: A few members of any given military unit defect, and immediately, they get shot at. Some run, some die, others shoot back.

MCEVERS: Jabri says in recent days, activists in Homs have warned that more than just a few defectors will take up arms and fight back if their political leaders in the opposition don't come up with a plan to stop the killings and detentions of protesters.

But fight back with what? Some of the defected soldiers might keep their guns, and other people might have guns at home. But these are no match for tanks and artillery. Jabri says for now, the elders of Homs are convincing most activists to remain peaceful. He says unlike other Syrian cities such as Daraa and Hama that have been centers of protest but eventually were overtaken by the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Homs is different.

AL-JABRI: Homsis will protest under any circumstances. If the army is already shooting, the Homsis will still go out and protest. They simply don't care. I think they're willing to sacrifice everybody in the city but not give it back to Assad.

MCEVERS: After all, Jabri says, one of the most vivid rallying cries of the Syrian uprising was coined in Homs: To heaven we are going, martyrs in our millions. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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