Syria courts Kurds after demonstrations

2011-04-07 17:26

Beirut - The Syrian president on Thursday granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds living in a northeastern province, fulfilling a key demand by the country's long ostracised minority and making yet another overture amid extraordinary anti-government protests that have shaken Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

State-run television said Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to more than 250 000 Kurds registered as aliens in the Hasaka province records.

In a separate decree, Assad sacked the governor of central Homs province that has been the scene of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in the past three weeks.

The overtures are part of a series of concessions by the regime, designed to subdue the protests that erupted in a southern city on March 18 and spread to other parts of Syria.

The decrees come on the eve of more protests planned by Syrian activists, who on social networking sites have called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday.

Local and international human rights groups have said at least 100 people were killed in three weeks of the crackdown on demonstrations that echo the recent uprisings across the Arab world.

Kurds - the largest ethnic minority in Syria - make up 15% of the country's 23 million population and have long complained of neglect and discrimination. About 250 000 Kurds have been denied citizenship, making it difficult to find work or enroll in the state-run education system.

Kurds not in anti-government protests

The government had argued that they are not Syrians but Kurds who fled to the country from neighbouring Turkey or Iraq.

Tensions between Kurds and the authorities have exploded into violence on several occasions. In March 2004, clashes between Syrian Kurds and security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli spread to the nearby cities of Hasaka and Aleppo, with at least 25 killed and 100 wounded.

Kurds have so far not joined anti-government protests that started last month, but authorities have been concerned they would - making Thursday's move likely an attempt to pacify the community.

The Kurds welcomed the move. Omar Osso, head of the Kurds' National Initiative, said it will help "tighten the unity" of the Syrian people.

"This is a historic step that has humanitarian and social dimensions," Osso said.

Six Syrian rights groups said on Wednesday that judicial authorities ordered the release of 48 Kurds detained last year in the northern city of Raqqah after throwing stones at Syrian police who ordered Kurds celebrating their new year to replace their ethnic flags with Syrian ones.

Assad on Thursday dismissed Governor Mohammad Iyad Ghaza, which had been a major demand by Homs residents after deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in the province.

The Syrian leader has already fired the governor of Daraa, an impoverished southern province where the protests began nearly three weeks ago.