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Syrian Troops Continue Crushing Offensive In Homs


Now to a city under siege in Syria. Syrian rebels are retreating from their stronghold of Homs today. They claim the move is a tactical one. They're running out of weapons. They also said they wanted to protect the people there from more death and destruction at the hands of the Syrian military, which has been bombarding Homs for weeks. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syria's president fits the definition of a war criminal. But neither tough talk from the West nor the U.N.'s appointment of a peace envoy, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, has done anything to stop the killing.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is following events in Syria from Beirut. Kelly, good morning.


MONTAGNE: Have you been able to reach people who are in Homs or the neighborhoods there?

MCEVERS: Well, this is the thing, Renee. For nearly a year of the Syrian uprising, a network of activists and citizen journalists have done everything they can to get the information out to us journalists who cannot reach these areas of Syria, mainly because the Syrian government won't allow us in.

Yesterday, for the first time in a year, most of these contacts inside the Baba-Amr neighborhood of Homs went dark. I have to say it was very chilling to see those Skype contacts disappear, to hear those phone calls go unanswered. And for the first time ever, the human rights groups who always provide the numbers of dead and injured basically threw up their hands and said we don't know what's going on.

What we can tell you is that activists in other neighborhoods of Homs said that the neighborhood of Baba-Amr - this is the neighborhood that is the most fierce in its resistance to the government - was surrounded on four sides by a special unit of the Syrian Army that's most loyal to the regime, and that the few fighters inside the neighborhood were trying to hold the neighborhood, were fighting back, but there's no question that they're completely outnumbered. There's a few hundred rebels in the neighborhood up against what could be thousands of Syrian troops.

MONTAGNE: We have reached people in that neighborhood over the last weeks of Baba-Amr, but remind us why it is such a target.

MCEVERS: Well, Baba-Amr in some ways is like the Benghazi of Syria, Benghazi of course being the rebel stronghold in Libya when that country was fighting against Moammar Gadhafi. Baba-Amr is the place that has seen the most fierce resistance to the Syrian regime throughout the uprising.

Early on in the uprising it saw protests, every day, despite the fact that protesters were getting shot, detained, tortured, killed. Then it was the first place that really saw an armed resistance. At first it was civilians picking up guns to protect these protesters. Then you saw defectors from the army joining with these ranks. And at some point these rebels basically held Baba-Amr. If you ask people in Baba-Amr, this was free Syria, according to them.

They held territory. Now, when we say territory, we're talking about a town of basically 28,000 people, about the same size as my home town in Illinois. But they did hold it. And so at some point, about a month ago, it appears the government made the decision that it was going to crush Baba-Amr. And now it looks like the ground offensive to finish Baba-Amr, as one Syrian official claimed, is underway.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, Kelly, there seem to be Western journalists still trapped inside the city of Homs. What is happening with them?

MCEVERS: Right. So six Western journalists had managed to sneak into Baba-Amr in recent weeks at great risk. Two of them were killed last week when a rocket hit a makeshift media center. Two now have managed to escape. One escaped just yesterday. But another two, a French woman and her colleague, are still thought to be trapped inside Homs.

MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers joined us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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