Amnesty International is expressing “serious concerns” about reports that least 20 people have been killed and hundreds of Syrian Kurds arrested by security forces since clashes broke out at a football match in the largely Kurdish town of Qamishli last Friday.
Unrest spread to several other northeastern cities where Kurdish demonstrators clashed with security forces and to Damascus and Aleppo where Kurdish students protested the deaths in the Kurdish region.
The clashes, the most serious anti-government incidents in almost 20 years, came amid growing pressure on the government of President Bashir Assad arising primarily from the U.S. occupation in neighboring Iraq.
The Bush administration has accused Syria of turning a blind eye to the infiltration of Islamist fighters into Iraq, as well as maintaining support for the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon, is set to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Damascus this week under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed by Congress late last year.
Sponsors of the Act, as well as influential neo-conservatives in and around the Bush administration, have urged Washington to take stronger measures against Damascus, including actions designed to destabilize the regime, although the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have said Damascus has provided useful cooperation in fighting al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups.
Like their cousins in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, Syrian Kurds have long been at odds with the central government in Damascus which has often discriminated against them. Even today, some 150,000 Kurds in Syria out of a total Kurdish population of 1.5-1.8 million are denied Syrian nationality and civil rights, according to Amnesty.
The success of Iraqi Kurds in obtaining a large measure of autonomy under the country’s new interim constitution has sparked concern in both Turkey and Syria about the restiveness of their own Kurdish populations. For much of the 20th century, Kurds sought self-determination for an independent Kurdistan that would claim significant amounts of territory from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
News reports said that the clashes in Qamishli began when supporters of a visiting Arab team, al-Fatwa, provoked fans from a predominantly Kurdish team, al-Jihad, by waving pictures of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein before the game. The London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) reported Monday that some of the Fatwa supporters carried guns and were backed by local security forces.
Police initially tried to disperse the crowds by shooting in the air, setting off a panic, in which some were shot and others, including at least three children, were killed in a stampede to escape the shooting. More than 150 others were injured.
After this incident, clashes between Kurds and security forces broke out in the northern towns Qamishli, al-Hassaka, Amouda, and Derik. Many government buildings and statues were attacked and burned, according to KHRP which reported that as many as 50 people died in the violence overnight.
The local governor sent in tanks and imposed a curfew in the towns, but five more were killed when police fired on a crowd of almost 10,000 who were carrying the bodies of ten victims through the streets of Qamishli Saturday, according to KHRP. Several people were also killed in demonstrations in Dayr al-Zur and Daamscus, the group said.
Hundreds of men and boys as young as 14 years old were reported to have been detained in the Kurdish northeast, most of them taken from their homes. Amnesty said their families have been unable to determine their whereabouts.
“Those killed and those detained may have been targeted because of their Kurdish origin,” Amnesty said. “Those in detention may be subjected to torture or otherwise ill-treated, given the fact that their whereabouts are still unknown.”
A government-owned newspaper, Tishreen,’ reported Tuesday that a committee had been set up to investigate the unrest and “severely punish the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes.”
Amnesty called for an independent and impartial investigation of the rioting, the police response, and the detentions. “The Syrian authorities must make known to those concerned the whereabouts of the detainees to avoid any mistreatment or the generation of more violence,” the London-based group said.
Peaceful demonstrations by Kurds reportedly took place in Qamishli and al-Hassaka four days before the Qamishli clashes. Amnesty said it had received reports that seven Syrian Kurds were arrested the following morning, adding to tensions in the region.
Several people were killed in clashes between Syrian authorities and Kurds in March 1986 during the spring festival of Newroz. In 1992, security forces carried out mass arrests after Kurds marked the 30th anniversary of the census which resulted in the deprivation of citizenship of tens of thousands of Kurds.
In 1995, the Syrian authorities banned the traditional Newroz celebrations and arrested dozens of Kurds, according to Amnesty.
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