May 21, 2011 in Nation/World

Syrians fire on protesters

Dozens killed; shops, homes burned
Borzou Daragahi Los Angeles Times
 
Kurds a large minority

Kurds make up about a tenth of Syria’s population of 22 million. With substantial populations also in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Kurds are said to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland. In Syria, where they live in an oil-rich part of the country, Kurds are not allowed to study their own language or celebrate their own holidays. In 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad brutally crushed an uprising in the Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli.

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, ignoring international pressure, fired on anti-government protesters, killing at least 34 on a day activists tried to draw the country’s Kurdish minority into the nationwide movement for political change.

The violent response to the demonstrations defied President Barack Obama’s call just hours earlier for Assad to either embrace political change in Syria or give up power. Security forces and plainclothes shabiha militiamen recruited from Assad’s dominant Allawite Muslim minority fired on protesters, burned down the homes and shops of suspected protesters, and rounded people up and herded them into detention centers, activists said.

It occurred as pro-democracy activists tried to broaden the movement against the government by appealing to the country’s ethnic Kurdish minority, which harbors its own grievances against the government. The activists dubbed the loosely organized day of mass protests after weekly prayers “Azadi Friday” or “Friday of freedom.” Azadi is the Kurdish word for freedom.

The call drew thousands of protesters into the streets in Kurdish towns along the country’s northern border. In the Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli, protesters held up signs calling for freedom in Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic, the language of the country’s Assyrian Christian minority, in a show of unity across Syria’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

Assad has tried to prevent Kurdish discontent from fusing with the general uprising against his family’s authoritarian rule. And while the tens of thousands of demonstrators in other parts of the country were met with gunfire and arrest, security forces generally showed some restraint in dealing with the Kurdish protesters.

“At first security forces moved towards the protest and tried to prevent some people from joining,” said a resident of Qamishli in the country’s northwest who is not being named to protect his safety. “But the security forces quickly withdrew and the protest got under way.”

After the demonstration, Syrian forces raided the offices of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, arresting 13 people for participating in the protests and destroying computers, said an Assyrian activist reached in Damascus.

Experts say Syrian authorities have used caution when dealing with the Kurds, who make up about a tenth of the country’s population of 22 million, because they are fearful of inciting nationalist aspirations. With a distinctive language and culture, Kurds are said to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland, inhabiting a region that straddles parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

“The Kurds are very important because they are the best organized group in Syria,” said Siamand Hajo, director of the Berlin-based website Kurdwatch.org, which monitors human rights violations against Syrian Kurds.

“The Kurdish opposition has political parties and has in the last years demonstrated that it has experience with this type of political activity.”

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