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Tension unabated after riots in Syria

QAMISHLI, Syria -- Armed police stood guard yesterday on main streets in this northeastern town, where most stores were closed and the atmosphere remained tense after the worst unrest in Syria in years.

At least 15 people were reported killed and more than 100 wounded in riots over the weekend that started with clashes between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans.

The violence, which gave rise to Kurdish protests in several European cities yesterday, poses a challenge to President Bashar Assad, whose government is already facing calls to improve human rights and threatened US sanctions for alleged support for terrorism.

The riots also raised concerns that the long-ignored minority Kurds, emboldened by a bigger role for fellow Kurds in neighboring Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, might push for greater recognition.

Kurds number about 1.5 million of Syria's 18.5 million people. Most live in the underdeveloped northeast, and many have been denied Syrian nationality, meaning they cannot vote, own property, go to state schools, or get government jobs.

While the two main towns in the northeast -- Qamishli and Hasakah -- were generally calm yesterday, there were reports of more violence in other parts of the region bordering Turkey and Iraq.

Gunmen broke into the house of a local official in the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab late Sunday, shooting his son, according to police officials in Qamishli who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Rioters also set fire to a civil registry office in the town, about 125 miles southwest of Qamishli.

Turkey's Anatolia news agency, reporting from the border town of Suruc, said Kurds in Ayn al-Arab also attempted to raid a prison and free inmates, but were unsuccessful.

A "few people" were killed in clashes between the Kurds and soldiers, the agency quoted "local sources" in Ayn Al-Arab as saying.

The disturbances began Friday in Qamishli, 450 miles from Damascus, shortly before Syria's championship soccer match was to begin in the city stadium. The next day, hundreds of Kurds went on the rampage, vandalizing shops and state offices in Qamishli and Hasakah.

According to Kurdish officials and hospitals in the area, 11 of the dead were Kurds and the other four Arab.

One Turkish media report said up to 49 people died. About 250 Kurds were reportedly rounded up by security forces.

Yesterday, smoke was still rising from smoldering barns set on fire during the rioting in Qamishli. Riot police armed with automatic rifles patrolled the main streets.

A customs office and a railway station were destroyed by fire. Cars outside the government buildings were damaged, overturned, or gutted. Rioters also broke chairs and desks at Arabistan School.

"Kurds are to blame for what has happened," said an Arab in the town who did not wish to give his name. "They are trying to politicize the issue to serve their own interests."

A ranking official in Qamishli alleged that some Kurdish parties were collaborating with "foreign forces" to annex some villages in the area to northern Iraq. The official insisted his name and position not be disclosed.

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