BEIRUT (AP) — Security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of mourners who turned out Saturday for the funeral of a slain Kurdish opposition leader in northeastern Syria, killing at least two people, eyewitnesses said.
Activists said security forces also fired on a funeral procession in the Damascus suburb of Douma for three people who were killed a day earlier. Ten people were wounded, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The biggest crowds took to the streets of Qamishli, where people marched to mourn Mashaal Tammo, the prominent and charismatic Kurdish opposition figure who was gunned down Friday by masked gunmen. The slaying was the latest in a string of targeted killings in Syria as the country slides further into disorder, seven months into the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
"All of Qamishli is out today, the funeral is turning into a massive protest," Kurdish activist and lawyer Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press by telephone. The grieving cries of fellow mourners could be heard in the background.
The mourners swelling through Qamishli's streets called on Assad to step down, with chants of "Leave, Leave," while others demanded the "execution of the president." Osso said more than 50,000 people were in the procession.
Security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing two mourners and wounding several others, he said.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network also said at least one person was killed and others injured in the gunfire. The group said the city has been completely shut down after a general strike was declared to mourn Tammo.
It said security forces clashed with protesters trying to tear down a statue of Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria with an authoritarian grip until his death in 2000.
Tammo, a 53-year-old former political prisoner and a spokesman for the Kurdish Future Party, was also a member of the executive committee of the newly formed Syrian National Council, a broad-based front bringing together opposition figures inside and outside the country in an attempt to unify the deeply fragmented dissident movement.
A vocal regime opponent, Tammo had been instrumental in organizing anti-government protests in Qamishli in recent months.
It was not clear who carried out the killing. Some in the opposition said the regime was responsible for his assassination. Osso said Tammo had no enemies and blamed security forces, but others noted there was a power struggle between him and rival Kurdish parties.
State-run news agency SANA reported his killing by "four masked gunmen in a black car," calling him a "national" opposition leader.
His death could spark violent protests in the Kurdish region at a time when Syria's security forces already have their hands full in trying to stamp out dissent across much of the rest of the country. Kurds — the largest ethnic minority in Syria — make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million people and have long complained of neglect and discrimination.
Assad granted citizenship in April to stateless Kurds in eastern Syria in an attempt to address some of the protesters' grievances.
The White House condemned Tammo's killing and said Assad must step down before he takes his country further "down this very dangerous path."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Tammo was another victim of a "brutal regime of lawlessness."
"The opposition's determination won't be crushed by violence. And the international pressure won't diminish, but will increase further," he added.
Tammo's assassination was similar to other recent targeted killings in Syria by unknown gunmen, raising concerns the country might be sliding toward civil war. The most recent was the assassination of the son of Syria's top Sunni cleric, who died in a hail of bullets outside the university where he studied earlier this week.
Several academics and physicists have also been shot dead by gunmen in the past month, most of them in the country's restive central and northern regions.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram