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Syrian Government Forces Fire On Protesters

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lets turn now to Syria, where a tough government crackdown against demonstrators has not deterred them from taking to the streets. There are reports that government forces early today fired on a large protest in the country's third-largest city. The protesters have been pressing for weeks for greater political freedoms and for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

Joining us now is journalist Philip Sands. He's based in the capital Damascus, and he reports for the English-language newspaper The National.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PHILIP SAND (Journalist, The National): Hello.

MONTAGNE: Now, President Assad promised over the weekend to lift the country's harsh emergency laws, laws that have kept Syria a virtual police state for nearly half a century. That clearly has not satisfied protestors there.

Mr. SANDS: No, absolutely not. They're still saying that it's not enough and that they want to see more than words. Over the course of the last three weeks, we've had a series of promises that the laws would be lifted. The first one suggested - this is weeks ago - that it would take 48 hours out and now the latest timeframe given by the president has been this week or perhaps next week. And it's still a little unclear.

So I think it's kind of gone beyond that now. People say that they want to see the end of the emergency laws. They want to see the security forces curtailed. They want to see political prisoners released and they want to see a multi-party state. At the moment it's a one-party state, and they don't feel that they've been given sufficient evidence that those are actually going to take place.

MONTAGNE: And what can you tell us about the demonstrations in this one city that's called Homs?

Mr. SANDS: It's very significant because it's the first large urban area in Syria that's really been taken in this kind of massive way by protests. And there were reports yesterday of 20,000 people in the city, and overnight and this morning they decided to stage a sit-in, which we hear was broken up by security services with live ammunition and tear gas. Again, really significant because it's an urban area and it's also something of a microcosm to Syria. It has all the different sects and ethnic groups in Homs.

MONTAGNE: And the Syrian government, how is it characterizing these demonstrations?

Mr. SANDS: It's taken a twin track, really. It has accepted that there are beautiful protests and the protesters do have legitimate demands. But at the same time, it's saying that they've been hijacked by armed mercenaries effectively. And the latest thing they've been saying now is that there's an armed mutiny underway in Syria and by radical Islamic groups. A number of soldiers were killed yesterday and their bodies were mutilated, according to the government, and so they're effectively saying that we're now into Islamic extremism, we're now into the possibilities of sectarian violence. And so they're presenting it very much as an insurrection.

MONTAGNE: Is there any truth to that?

Mr. SANDS: Good question, and difficult to answer with any hard certainty. I mean, I can put it this way: The Syrians I've spoken to say there are doubtless groups that would like to destabilize the country and they might well be getting help from foreign agencies. But I think a lot of people think that it's kind of a ruse and that the vast majority of protestors, they're not armed. They just want to see some political reforms here.

And perhaps a telling thing would be on Friday. There were massive demonstrations here in Syria and nobody was hurt. So it's very much a disputed narrative.

MONTAGNE: Just one last question: You are one of the rare journalists able to cover Syria. How hard is it for a reporter to get into that country?

Mr. SANDS: It's difficult to cover the country. I mean, basically to travel around you need permission to go to these various places and those permissions have not been forthcoming. The suggestion from the authorities is that it's for our own safety not to go to these places where armed groups might want to kill a foreigner. So it's difficult.

We talk to people if we can, we get eyewitness reports, we talk to government officials where possible. And the online activists, those using Twitter and Facebook, have been doing a lot of the journalism legwork these days. And so they're the ones who are kind of disputing the official state-run media line on what's happening in Syria.

MONTAGNE: Philip, thank you.

Mr. SANDS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: We have been speaking with Philip Sands in Damascus. He covers Syria for The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.