A rare look inside Syria, under Assad's thumb

HOMS, Syria - The deadly violence in Syria has been mounting for ten months, leaving more than 5,000 people dead - mostly anti-government protesters - according to the United Nations.

The protesters demand that long-time dictator Bashar Assad step down immediately, but his family has held Syria in an iron grip for 40 years, and he is determined to hang on at any price.

Assad has kept most foreign journalists out of the country. CBS News applied for visas six months ago, and on Wednesday, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer finally gained official access to the closed nation. She saw only what the government wanted her to see, but the brutality and violence was still apparent.

Another group of Western journalists were midway through their own government-supervised tour of the embattled city of Homs when the area came under fire Wednesday.

One French reporter was killed. So were eight Syrians - ordinary residents of this middle class neighborhood. Just 20 minutes earlier, the CBS News crew was on the same street to hear from the people who say the threat of snipers and kidnapping is constant.

CBS News wasn't allowed out of sight of the government minders, but from the bus windows, Homs looked eerily quiet. Armed opposition groups opposed to the regime now control whole neighborhoods, which are off limits to all government vehicles.

The bus driver didn't dare drive across town, instead driving all the way around it to the next destination on the official tour: the Nader Shaqfah Military Hospital, where CBS News was shown injured Syrian soldiers in every bed.

Doctors say an average of 25 wounded soldiers arrive daily, along with four to five dead.

In Damascus, President Assad made a rare public appearance at a pro-government rally on Wednesday.

Speaking to a vast crowd of supporters, he once again blamed the violence on a foreign plot, and promised to crack down hard on people he has repeatedly deemed "terrorists," who he says are merely acting out the will of foreign groups and governments.

There are very disturbing signs, however, that in spite of international attempts to mediate in this conflict and quell the violence, the situation is actually escalating.

There is already a lot of evidence to suggest we're looking at the opening chapters of a civil war already underway between the two main Islamic factions in Syria.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."

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