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12 Kurds Killed in More Clashes with Syrian Police - 2004-03-17

At least 12 Kurds have been killed in northern Syria, in the latest in a series of clashes with police that began last Friday.

Several people were shot to death in northeastern Syria on Tuesday, when security forces fired at Kurdish demonstrators. Hundreds had gathered to mark the anniversary of the devastating chemical attacks that Saddam Hussein launched against Kurds in northern Iraq 16 years ago.

The deaths followed several days of violence between Kurds and Syrian police, which began when fighting broke out between Arabs and Kurds at a football game last week. At least a dozen people were killed in the fighting, and several more died a day later when Syrian police opened fire on a Kurdish funeral procession.

The Syrian government has not released an official death toll, but Syria's state news agency acknowledged the violence on Wednesday, and blamed what it called forces trying to dominate the Middle East.

A spokeswoman for the Kurdish Human Rights Project in London, Rochelle Harris, said the Syrian government views Kurdish identity as a dangerous force. "They are seen as a threat to the state because it is perceived that the Kurds in Syria want to form a separate state in the northeast Kurdish region. Because of that, the Syrian authorities deliberately under-invest in the region so it can never be economically stable. It has created lots of tension between Arabs and Kurds in Syria. They are seen as a threat to the state just by virtue of being Kurdish," she said.

Ms. Harris said the unrest is the most serious in recent history, and is escalating. She said Kurds from Turkey have tried to cross the border into Syria to show their solidarity, but have been blocked by Turkish army forces. Kurdish groups in Iran and Belgium have held demonstrations to protest the treatment of Kurds in Syria.

The chairman of the Human Rights Association of Syria in Damascus, Haitham El-Maleh, said he believes some Kurds are becoming more vocal because of their neighbors in Iraq. "The new constitution in Iraq gives the Kurds the right to object to any law. So the Kurds in Syria, maybe not all of them but maybe some of them, find this a good time to move. Not all of them are of the same idea or the same direction," he said.

The United States has criticized Syria's policy toward the Kurds. Earlier this week, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called on Damascus to refrain from using repressive measures against what he called a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life.

The international human rights group Amnesty International has called on Syria to report where it is holding hundreds of Kurdish men it has arrested during the clashes, including some boys as young as 14 years old. Amnesty International urged the Syrian authorities to ensure that the detainees are not mistreated, which it said could fuel further violence.