Assad tries to appease Kurds after unrest

Thu Apr 7, 2011 2:34pm GMT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad granted citizenship on Thursday to Kurds in eastern Syria, part of attempts to cool resentment over nearly five decades of strict Baathist rule and deflect pro-democracy protests.

Popular protests across mostly Sunni Muslim Syria demanding an end to a decades-old emergency law and one-party rule have posed the most serious challenge to Assad's 11 years in power.

Syria's ruling hierarchy, packed with minority Alawites, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests, including those of other minorities such as Kurds who say they are discriminated against.

Assad's overture to Kurds who make up about 10 percent of Syria's 20 million population came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners and that the president had met leaders in the eastern al-Hasaka region where many Kurds live earlier in the week.

It was not immediately clear how many would be given nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in al-Hasaka.

But Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim said Kurds would press their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy to replace autocratic rule.

"Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant," Ibrahim, who heads the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, told Reuters.

Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds when they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004. Kurds are not allowed to teach Kurdish in schools and cannot set up Kurdish radio stations.

Syria had increased the number of arrests of Kurdish activists since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled the countries' rulers, in power for decades.   Continued...

<p>Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad addresses the parliament in Damascus in this still image taken from a video footage March 30, 2011. REUTERS/Syrian state TV via Reuters TV</p>
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