DAMASCUS – Hundreds of Kurds (search) rioted at a funeral Saturday for victims of a soccer stadium stampede, vandalizing shops and state offices and shouting anti-government slogans — a rare protest in tightly controlled Syria (search). At least one person was killed and 17 wounded, hospital officials said.
Witnesses said police fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd in Qamishli (search), a city along the border with predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey where a soccer match Friday erupted into a melee between fans of rival Kurd and Arab teams. The death toll from the stadium stampede rose Saturday to nine, hospital officials said.
Saturday's riot broke out as a crowd of Kurds buried three victims. Mourners shouted slogans against Qamishli governor Salim Kabboul (search) and attacked shops and government buildings, setting fire to a Department of Customs office, said Ibrahim al-Hussein, a lawyer.
A local politician, Abdel Baki Youssef of the Kurdish Yakiti Party (search), said police shot dead a number of rioters Saturday, but hospitals in the city did not confirm this.
The state National Hospital said it received only one fatality. Three other hospitals said they had received a combined total of 17 wounded.
Police barred journalists from entering Qamishli. The pan-Arab television Al-Arabiya broadcast panoramic images showing a plume of black smoke rising from the city.
Spontaneous demonstrations are extremely unusual in Syria, where the Baath party has maintained tight political control for more than 30 years. A riot by Kurds, who dominate Syria's underdeveloped northeast, would be especially sensitive for authorities.
The editor-in-chief of the ruling party's Al-Baath newspaper, Mahdi Dakhlallah, called the events an attempt "to hit Syrian national unity."
Syria's state broadcast said the government had appointed a committee to investigate. The riots in Qamishli damaged "the stability and security of the homeland and the citizen — two constants of the national interest," the broadcast said. It blamed the riots on "some intriguers" who had adopted "exported ideas," an apparent reference to Kurdish nationalism.
Syria's government fears its Kurdish minority could follow the lead of Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Turkey in seeking greater independence and recognition. Syrian President Bashar Assad recently joined Turkey in warning against a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
Of Syria's 18 million people, about 1.5 million are Kurds. But the constitution does not mention Kurds, and about 160,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian nationality, meaning they cannot vote, own property, go to state schools or get government jobs.
In Friday's riot, more than 100 people were injured at the stadium: Spectators inside were crushed in a stampede to escape an attack by rival fans; people outside were caught in a fight between the two teams' supporters. Eight of the wounded were still in the hospital Saturday, hospital officials said.
One of the teams involved, Al-Jihad, is a predominantly Syrian Kurdish soccer club. The other, Al-Fatwa, is predominantly Syrian Arab. The match was canceled.
Supporters of Al-Fatwa triggered the riot when they threw stones at players and fans of Al-Jihad shortly before the game was to start. Al-Jihad fans tried to flee, setting off a stampede, according witnesses.
Ibrahim Hussein, who witnessed Friday's riot, said the trouble began when Al-Futuwa fans called out "long live Saddam Hussein!" — the deposed Iraqi dictator still revered in some parts as an Arab nationalist.
Al-Jihad supporters shouted back "long live Barzani" — a reference to Massoud Barzani, one of the two major Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq.
When Al-Jihad fans outside the stadium heard what was happening inside, they surrounded a group of Al-Fatwa supporters and began attacking them. Police fired shots in the air, and some rioters responded by hurling stones, witnesses said. It was believed that four of the victims were killed inside the stadium, and five outside.
Ten Syrian human rights groups issued a joint statement Saturday largely blaming police for the casualties.
"We hold the security apparatus, and those who ordered the firing (to disperse the crowds), mainly responsible for what happened," the statement said. It called for an immediate end to the violence.
The Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria issued a separate statement calling for "self-restraint for the sake of the unity of the people and homeland."