Football fans' fight causes a three-day riot in Syria

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The Independent Online

A fight between Arab and Kurdish supporters of rival Syrian football clubs has led to three days of rioting in the north-east of the country, which has left at least 15 people dead and more than 100 injured.

A fight between Arab and Kurdish supporters of rival Syrian football clubs has led to three days of rioting in the north-east of the country, which has left at least 15 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Despite claims by Kurdish officials that peace had been restored to the city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, where the trouble started, there were reports yesterday that Kurdish gunmen had killed four Arabs.

The violence began on Friday when a fight broke out between supporters of the al-Jihad and al-Fatwa football teams shortly before a match in Qamishli, 450 miles north east of Damascus. At least nine people died during the violence and stampede that followed.

Syrian state broadcasting reported late Saturday evening that the government had appointed a committee to investigate reasons behind the rioting, and an official statement warned those who broke the law would face "the severest punishments".

It said the riots damaged "the stability and security of the homeland and the citizen" and were the fault of "some intriguers" who had adopted "exported ideas."

Yesterday security officers and residents armed with licensed hunting rifles roamed the streets of Qamishli. They said their orders were not to use force unless "absolutely necessary".

However, there were reports that the security forces had opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. Around 250 Kurds have been arrested.

The violence began on Friday when a fight broke out between supporters of al-Jihad and al-Fatwa football teams shortly before the start of their Syrian championship match in Qamishli, 450 miles northeast of Damascus.

It was reported that some of the fans began waiving a Kurdish flag and held aloft signs blessing US President George Bush, whose war in neighbouring Iraq has emboldened the Kurds there to call for recognition of their identity in a new constitution.

The Arab fans responded with jeers, denouncing Iraqi Kurdish leaders and provoking violent clashes that ended with riot police moving into the stadium.

It is thought that nine people died in the initial fighting and the stampede that followed.

On Saturday hundreds of Kurds took to the streets of Qamishli in spontaneous demonstrations that quickly degenerated into further rioting and the looting of shops and state offices.

The violence quickly spread to surrounding villages. Faisal Youssef, a member of the political bureau of the Democratic Progressive Kurdish Party in Syria, said 13 people in all had died in Qamishli and two in the Amouda village, 18 miles to the west.

Hameed Darwish, head of the Progressive Democratic Kurdish Party in Qamishli, also reported burning and looting of Kurdish property in the ethnically mixed city of Hasakah yesterday.

In Damascus students and Kurdish residents staged sit-ins to protest events in the north, and some public property and cars were damaged.

Several hundred riot officers wearing helmets and bearing plastic shields were stationed around Damascus University and in the Dummar suburb where several thousand Kurds live.

The unrest also spread beyond Syria's borders, prompting a break in at the Syrian embassy in Brussels by Kurdish demonstrators on Saturday.

Shouting "Syria, terrorists!" around 50 demonstrators climbed into the embassy garden and smashed windows, scattered pamphlets and damaged furniture before being removed by police.

Belgium has a large Kurdish community, most immigrants from Turkey.

The clashes come at a politically sensitive time for President Bashar Assad who is facing increasing pressure both domestically and from abroad.

The Bush administration has made it clear it intends to impose sanctions on Syria within the next few weeks for what it sees at its refusal to clamp down on Lebanese and Palestinian guerrilla groups which attack Israelis.

Syria has called for constructive dialogue over the sanctions which it claims were motivated by its support for Arab rights.

On the home front, human rights groups have accused the Syrian government of neglecting the rights of the country's two million Kurds, most of whom live in the underdeveloped north-eastern areas of Qamishli and Hasakah.

About 160,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian nationality, meaning they cannot vote, own property, go to state schools or get government jobs.

There is no mention of the Kurds as a distinct minority in Syria's constitution, with the government fearful of the destabilising effect of the Kurdish aspiration for a breakaway state in the north.

President Assad is also facing mounting pressure from a group of Syrian intellectuals who are campaigning for the lifting of the state's emergency laws, put in place since the Baath's party's rise to power 41 years ago.

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