Dozens of families fled across the Syrian border into Lebanon Saturday after Syrian tanks surrounded the town of Tel Kelakh, 20 kilometers from Lebanon. Witnesses say at least three people were killed by government troops on Saturday. The crackdown in Tel Kelakh comes amid government claims that the army is pulling out of the flashpoint cities of Daraa, Banyas and Homs and that the government is opening a dialogue with the opposition.
Arab satellite channels showed Syrian families crossing by foot into Lebanon Saturday to escape a military crackdown in the nearby town of Tel Kelakh. Hundreds of men, women and children crossed a stream dividing the countries, as gunfire crackled on the Syrian side of the border.
Witnesses say Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were waiting at the border to ferry wounded Syrians to a local hospital.
The fighting and exodus into Lebanon came despite Syrian media claims that the government had set up a committee to hold a dialogue with the opposition. The Syrian daily Al Watan insisted that a high-level committee had been set up to meet with the opposition and discuss reforms.
Syrian government media claims that Salafists and other Islamic extremists are trying to overthrow the government. Saturday, it insisted that extremists were trying to set up an Islamic emirate in Tel Kelakh, forcing the army to intervene. Opposition groups called the charges “bogus.”
Hundreds of mourners chanting slogans against the government marched in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun Saturday to bury a man shot by security forces during Friday protests. Activists say at least six people were killed after the army and government militiamen opened fire on protesters.
Human rights groups say that more than 750 people have been killed in Syria in eight weeks of protests against the government. Pro-government militiamen have conducted door-to-door dragnets in dozens of towns and cities, arresting thousands of people with alleged ties to the opposition.
Syrian TV also claimed that over 6,000 Syrians had turned themselves in for a government amnesty, claiming that they were released afterwards. Citizens of several cities also told Syrian TV that they were “happy that the army had moved in to restore order” and to “arrest thugs.”
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told journalists Friday that the army was pulling out of the flashpoint cities of Banyas and Daraa, as the government prepares to open a dialogue with the opposition.
Veteran Syrian human rights activist Michel Kilo told al Jazeera TV, however, that the opposition would not hold a dialogue with the government “until thousands of political prisoners are released.” Syrian TV showed President Bashar al-Assad meeting with artists, insisting he listened to their ideas to “improve sectarian relations in the country.”
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, questioned the Syrian government’s sincerity about holding a dialogue, following its bitter and bloody crackdown. "Calling for national dialogue all over Syria, I think, is another stalling technique. The regime is trying to buy more time. I mean, why [did they wait] until now to [open a] dialogue. The regime said repeatedly that they have authorized security forces not to open fire on protesters, yet they do, and they open fire with vengeance. So, I'm not going to take what they say at face value," he said.
Khashan argues that “the main grievance of protesters is freedom” and that their movement appears to be gaining momentum, despite the government crackdown. He adds that the “spark is starting to spread across Syria,” and that what began as a rural movement is progressing to large cities, and is in the process of engulfing Damascus and Aleppo.