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Syria Cracks Down On Southern City

GUY RAZ, host:

There are reports today of heavy gunfire in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. That city has become the center of protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. People there are reporting that the Syrian army stormed a mosque today that was a rallying point for anti-regime demonstrators.

Now, most Western journalists have been shut out of Syria.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring the situation from Beirut. And she joins us on the line.

Kelly, can you tell us what you know about what happened today?

KELLY McEVERS: What we know is that witnesses say tanks and armored personnel carriers and helicopters stormed into Daraa this morning. Soldiers fired shells and machine guns, and killed at least four people. Among those people was the son of the imam of the main mosque in the town. Again, this mosque was a rallying cry for protesters.

Now, residents are telling us there are snipers posted on the main right of the mosque, and people are afraid to even poke their heads out of the windows for fear of being shot.

The city has been under blockade since Monday. There's no water, no electricity, and there are food shortages. And now, human rights groups are fearing this is going to become a major humanitarian crisis.

RAZ: What is the Syrian government saying about all of this, or are they saying anything at all?

McEVERS: Well, the government says it's trying to deal with what it calls extremist terrorist gangs in Daraa. State TV yesterday showed the bodies of four soldiers who'd clearly been beaten brutally and shot several times, and the implication was that they were killed by residents of Daraa.

Activists are saying that those were actually members of the army who were killed when pro-regime soldiers fought against anti-regime soldiers. They're saying some of the soldiers have actually defected.

But like so much in Syria right now, we just can't independently confirm either version of the story.

RAZ: Oh, obviously because journalists like you are simply not being allowed in.

McEVERS: Right.

RAZ: Do we have a sense of how big this is becoming or could become in Syria?

McEVERS: In terms of the protest movement, we know thousands of people went to the streets yesterday. We also know that hundreds of members of Assad's Baath Party, the ruling party of Syria, have resigned. Now, that's hundreds out of, you know, 1.5 million to two million...

RAZ: Right.

McEVERS: ...and these low-level guys. So it does seem like there are still a lot of people who support him, not just those in his sect, the minority sect, the Alawites, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but also Christians and Sunnis who benefit from the regime.

It's been said these groups really fear the breakup of the state. You know, people are worrying about an Iraq-style sectarian war, that there's no longer a dictator to hold everything in place. And we have been getting some scant reports that the army is giving weapons to Alawite villagers to face off against their Sunni neighbors. If this is true, it doesn't bode well for a region that's already seeing sectarian tensions flare up again.

RAZ: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut.

Kelly, thanks so much.

McEVERS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.