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Syrian authorities should seek an independent investigation into the March 20 shootings by security forces that left three Kurds dead and at least five wounded at a New Year’s celebration, Human Rights Watch said today. The circumstances of the shootings raise concerns that state security forces used unnecessary lethal force in violation of international law.

On March 20 at about 7:00 p.m., Syrian internal security forces opened fire on Kurds celebrating the New Year (“Nowruz”) in the largely Kurdish town of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch. The shots killed Muhammad Yahya Khalil and Muhammad Zaki Ramadan immediately. A third man, Muhammad Mahmud Hussein, died later from his wounds. All three were between 18 and 25 years old. Those wounded include Muhieldin Hajj Jamil `Issa, Karam Ibrahim Yusif, Muhammad Kheir Khalaf `Issa, Riad Yussef Sheikhi, and Khalil Sulayman Hussein.

“Syrian officials have to justify why security forces opened fire at a Kurdish celebration,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible for using unnecessary lethal force should be brought to justice.”

This is not the first time that Syrian forces have used force to break up a Kurdish celebration. In March 2006, security officers arrested dozens of Kurds and used teargas and batons to stop a candle-lit night procession in celebration of Nowruz.

Participants in this year’s festivities told Human Rights Watch that about 200 people gathered around 6:30 p.m. on a road in the western part of Qamishli. They lit candles on the side of the road and a bonfire in the middle, around which some performed a Kurdish traditional dance. “This was a celebration of Nowruz, not a political demonstration,” one of the participants told Human Rights Watch.

Firefighters appeared on the scene to extinguish the bonfire while police and intelligence officers fired teargas canisters and live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowds. Two participants told Human Rights Watch that when the celebrants failed to disperse, individuals wearing civilian clothes and driving in a white pick-up truck of the type usually used by intelligence officials fired their assault rifles into the crowd. “Without any warning, they started firing to the ground and suddenly bullets started flying indiscriminately,” an eyewitness told Human Rights Watch.

It is unclear what provoked the security forces to fire into the crowd. According to three participants in the celebrations, none of the Kurds were armed or resorted to violence. Reuters reported that one resident in Qamishli told them that some “youths burned tires and threw stones at the riot police,” but Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm this claim.

Syrian authorities have not issued an official statement on the incident.

“The Syrian authorities have little credibility when it comes to investigating their own prior misdeeds,” Stork said. “To prove the skeptics wrong, they need to hold a transparent and independent investigation.”

In policing demonstrations, security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. These international standards call on law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, and then only use force in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Security forces should use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

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