Fears of new front as Syria rebels clash with Kurds

Filed on October 27, 2012

Syrian rebels clashed with Kurdish militia in the northern city of Aleppo, leaving 30 dead and around 200 captured, a watchdog said on Saturday, sparking fears of a new front in an already fractured country.

The fighting between armed rebels and members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), erupted on Friday in the majority Kurdish neighbourhood of Ashrafiyeh, it said.

“There were 30 people — Arabs and Kurds — killed in the fighting, including 22 combatants from both sides,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement, adding that Ashrafiyeh is still under PYD militia control.

Some 200 people were captured, mostly by the rebels, the Observatory said.

“Some 20 rebels were kidnapped by the PYD. The rest of those kidnapped are Kurds,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Massud Akko, a prominent Kurdish activist and journalist from Syria, said he feared President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would use the violence to stir up conflict between the rebels and Kurdish militia.

“While I am opposed to the (rebel) Free Syrian Army’s entry into safe areas, Assad’s regime is looking for ways to create conflict among Syrians,” he told AFP.

Some 15 percent of Syria’s population of 23 million are Kurds. The minority has largely remained neutral during the country’s civil war, which has sown divisions among its patchwork of ethnic and religious groups.

The Kurdish area of Aleppo had been relatively free of the violence that has plagued Aleppo since fighting between regime forces and armed rebels broke out there on July 20.

On Thursday, residents said around 200 rebels moved into the district, a day before the start of a proposed truce for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Strategically important, Ashrafiyeh sits in Aleppo’s heights and on a route between the city’s north and centre.

The fighting came the next day and was the fiercest clash between Kurds and rebels since the March 2011 start of Syria’s conflict.

Over the summer, the army withdrew from majority Kurdish areas, including Ashrafiyeh and several towns on the Turkish border, leaving Kurds with some degree of autonomy.

Rebel fighters are only allowed to enter these areas unarmed and in civilian clothing.

A PYD statement published after the fighting blamed both Assad’s regime and the FSA for violence against Kurds.

“We have chosen to remain neutral, and we will not take sides in a war that will only bring suffering and destruction to our country,” the statement said.

For two days before Friday’s clash, the army dropped shells on Ashrafiyeh, the PYD said. On Friday, the FSA stormed a road that cuts through Ashrafiyeh and the nearby Sheikh Maksud district, it added.

“They started to shoot at crowds gathered at the (militia) checkpoints,” it said. “They were protesting, calling on the armed groups to leave residential areas.”

A rebel group described Friday’s violence as the result of a misunderstanding and blamed it on Assad’s regime.

“Our Kurdish brothers are comrades in our nation,” the Free Syrians Brigade said in a statement. “The problem... was the result of a misunderstanding that was created by a regime plot.”

The conflict, which has pitted the army, security forces and pro-regime militias against rebel fighters since a revolt against Assad morphed into an armed insurgency, has left at least 35,000 people dead, according to the Observatory.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union, took up arms in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed about 45,000 lives.

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