Syrian Kurdish anger smolders after activist death

BEIRUT Fri Oct 14, 2011 10:50am EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - A week after Mishaal al-Tammo was shot dead in Syria's eastern town of Qamishli, pictures of the Kurdish activist adorn walls and shop windows, signs of lingering anger in a community with long-standing grievances against President Bashar al-Assad.

Tammo was gunned down in an attack which many activists blamed on supporters of the president, though others suspected Kurdish rivals or even opposition gunmen trying to incite Kurds to give greater backing to seven months of anti-Assad protests.

Tens of thousands turned out for Tammo's funeral last Saturday and at least two people were killed when troops fired on the mourners, activists said.

That bloodshed has not triggered a full-scale Kurdish rebellion, but Kurdish residents in eastern Syria contacted by Reuters expressed resentment against authorities and said more people had been protesting since Tammo's killing.

On Friday at least 20,000 demonstrators in Qamishli shouted slogans for the "execution of the president." It was one of the biggest rallies in the town, which has seen months of steady, but generally placid, protests before Tammo's death.

A witness said three rows of boys and girls marched at the front of the protesters, carrying pictures of Tammo. Banners with anti-Assad slogans were mainly black, a sign of mourning.

A graduate student in Qamishli who gave his name only as Kawa, said the popular mood had turned angrier after Tammo's assassination. "I don't think this will change until the fall of the regime."

Kurds make up 10 percent of Syria's 20 million people and have long complained of discrimination, ranging from lack of citizenship for many Kurds to unequal rights to water and land which led to hundreds of thousands being displaced.

Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran all have significant minorities of Kurds, whose nationalist aspirations have gone unfulfilled.

Syrian authorities took an even tougher line after 30 people were killed in Kurdish protests against Assad in 2004.

A leaked U.S. embassy cable two years later said the Kurdish movement included the "most organized and daring political opposition and civil society groups" in Syria.

"There are few threats that loom larger in Bashar's mind than unrest with the Kurds," it said, noting that Kurds had been ready to protest violently "when others would dare not."

EARLIER ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

In a sign of the significance Assad attached to curbing Kurdish dissent, one of the first -- and most concrete -- concessions he made in the first weeks of Syria's uprising was to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds.

"Syrian nationality is a right that we ought to have naturally and should never be a gift conceded unwillingly by the government," said a Kurdish activist who gave his name as Karadogh, a 25-year-old computer engineer.

A charismatic figure jailed in 2009 for "weakening national morale," Tammo was released in June but criticized Assad's military crackdown on protests in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed. His criticism of rivals also angered powerful Kurdish parties.

Three weeks before he was killed, Tammo told Reuters a car packed with men wielding rifles tried to run him off the road.

"It was an assassination attempt by the regime, regardless whether they were shabbiha drawn from Kurdish or Arabic regions," he said, referring to militiamen loyal to Assad.

"The regime wants to drive a wedge between the Kurds to stop us from joining the uprising. But for me the blood spilled in Deraa or Hama is as Syrian as any blood spilled in Hasaka or Qamishli. This regime must be brought down."

His death followed a series of assassinations in western Syria. The son of the state-appointed mufti, Syria's most senior Sunni Muslim cleric, was shot dead, as were several figures in the city of Homs who had links to authorities.

Karadogh said he believed Tammo's killers were either 'shabbiha' militiamen loyal to Assad or hardline opponents of Assad trying to mobilize Kurds to seek his overthrow.

Kawa said the killing may have been the work of the anti-Turkish PKK party -- which activists say Assad has allowed to re-emerge recently -- in cooperation with authorities. Others said his shooting was meant to intimidate Assad's opponents.

"Mishaal was a patriotic man and he was a Syrian before being Kurdish," said a man who asked to be named as Ahmed and who is a member of the newly formed opposition Syrian National Council, as Tammo was.

"They killed him in order to scare the rest of (Assad's) opponents and to give a warning message to the rest of the members of the National Council."

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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