Kurdish Unrest Spreads in Syria; Toll Is Put at 15

Fad Span ( Fuat Akpinar )


Published: March 14, 2004
The New York Times

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 13
— Unrest set off by Kurdish demonstrators demanding minority rights spread across northeastern Syria on Saturday, with Kurdish leaders saying up to 15 people were killed and scores wounded over two days as the riot police put down the rare protests with gunfire.

The unrest spread to Damascus, where several hundred riot officers wearing helmets and bearing plastic shields were stationed around Damascus University and in a predominately Kurdish suburb. Students and Kurdish residents of the suburb had staged sit-ins to protest events in the north, human rights activists said.

Syrian Kurds, inspired by the changes next door in Iraq — where the Kurds are seeking to enshrine their distinct identity in a new constitution — have become increasingly vocal in demanding minority rights. The government suspects them of seeking autonomy or even trying to break away to join Iraqi Kurdistan.

The 11 main Syrian human rights and other civic organizations issued a joint statement on Saturday calling on the government to end the unrest through dialogue and to increase rights for Kurds through government action rather than violence. It said the security forces should be held accountable for opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.

"This tragic situation comes under a state of political and social inflammation in the country, due to the absence of democratic life and public freedoms, including the disregard of the rights of Kurds," said the small but vocal groups said in the statement.

The unrest began Friday at a soccer match in El Qamishliye, 450 miles northeast of Damascus.

Some soccer fans began waiving a Kurdish flag and held aloft signs blessing President Bush, while chanting "We will sacrifice our lives for Bush," said a report in the newspaper Sharq Al Awsat, published in London. The other side responded with jeers, denouncing Iraqi Kurdish leaders. That caused violent clashes that ended with the riot police moving into the stadium.

The first few victims died there, some shot and some trampled in the melee, Kurdish rights advocates said. The demonstrations spread around the area and continued into a second day on Saturday as the funerals for the first victims started.

Eight people died Friday, while four died in El Qamishliye on Saturday, as well as three in nearby Malkiya and Dereek, said Abdel Baki Youssef, a Kurdish advocate speaking by telephone from the city. He said scores of protesters had been wounded and many arrested, with normal street life suspended because of the number of security policemen on the streets.

It was unclear how many of the victims had been trampled in the original melee and how many had been shot. Although there were no reports on Syria's state-controlled press on Saturday, Ahmed Haj Ali, an adviser to the minister of information, said 14 people had been killed and up to 60 had been wounded.

Speaking on the Arab satellite news channel Al Arabiya, Mr. Ali said there had been damage to public property. Al Arabiya showed pictures of flames and smoke erupting from the center of El Qamishliye — from which the press was barred. He denied that the unrest was politically motivated, saying it was like soccer violence anywhere.

The official SANA news agency acknowledged the violence on Friday and said a number of people had been killed, but provided no details.

But the government has clearly been concerned about how its Kurdish minority might react to events in Iraq. President Bashar al-Assad said on a visit to Turkey in January that Syria opposed any attempt to divide Iraq, a common stand among all neighboring nations.

The Kurds here have begun aggressively demanding recognition, including the granting of Syrian citizenship to up to 200,000 who have been denied it, the right to register their land and the right to use their language. Kurds make up 1.5 million of Syria's population of 17 million.

The tension is such that one general, charged with stopping a very rare protest in Damascus last Monday by human rights activists demanding an end to emergency laws, blamed the Kurds and their American allies for the entire situation.

Syrian Kurds deny seeking an independent homeland, but say the government should start treating them like citizens rather than driving them into the arms of outsiders.

"The regime should not force us to be the Trojan horse for whoever comes," said Marwan Othman, a Kurdish rights advocate.

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