Syrian Kurds flee to Iraqi safe haven

AFP, Tuesday 28 Feb 2012

Syrian Kurds who represent about 9 per cent of the country's population are encouraged to flee after an announcement made by authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan that they will not hand back defectors to Damascus

Civilians fleeing from fighting after army tanks entered the city of Idlib, Syria. (AP)

Away from his family and living in a small flat, Omar Izzat Ibrahim is among rising numbers of Syrian Kurds who have fled a bloody crackdown to the safe haven of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Their increasing numbers were highlighted by the announcement on Monday that authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan had awarded refugee status to 30 Kurdish Syrian soldiers who defected, with officials insisting they would not be handed back to Damascus.

"Many soldiers want to leave the army and defect," said Ibrahim, a sergeant from the town of Kobani, along Syria's border with Turkey.

"From the start of the uprising, we were under a lot of pressure from our commanders. They were cursing us all the time, especially Kurdish soldiers who came from cities where rebellions took place."

The 30-year-old told of how he forged papers granting him six days of leave and fled to Kobani and hid with relatives before secretly crossing into Dohuk, Iraq's northernmost province, in early February.

Since then, he has lived in a relative's apartment in the regional capital Arbil with a civilian defector and three others, with only a small television as entertainment.

Syrian Kurds represent about nine percent of the country's population and are mainly located in the northeast and Damascus, where they form an important minority.

They say they have been the subject of political discrimination for decades, and demand recognition of their language and culture and want to be treated as full citizens.

That said, they have largely escaped the worst of a ruthless military offensive against parts of the country revolting against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Rights groups estimate that the conflict has left at least 7,600 people dead.

Iraqi Kurdish officials, meanwhile, expect 1,000 Syrian families to cross into Dohuk and are preparing to build a camp in the province to accommodate them, according to Shaker Yassin, head of the Kurdish interior ministry's immigration office.

"Those who are escaping the violence have been coming to Kurdistan since the beginning of the year," said Yassin, adding that he did not have numbers on how many families had crossed into Iraq since the uprising began 11 months ago because most, like Ibrahim, stayed with relatives and did not register.

On Monday it was announced that 30 Kurdish Syrian soldiers who fled to Iraq had been given refugee status.

"We received them for humanitarian reasons, and they are under our protection and we gave them refugee status," said Anwar Haji Othman, Kurdish deputy minister for the local peshmerga security forces, referring to the army defectors.

"We will not hand them over to the Syrian government because they are Kurdish and it is our right to protect them," he said.

According to an official overseeing two camps of Kurdish Syrian refugees in Dohuk, 15 families and 130 civilian men, all Kurds, have arrived in the autonomous region from Syria in recent days.

"I was outside of Syria and when I came back to Damascus, I was arrested at the airport because I did not join the army," said Mohammed, one of Ibrahim's flatmates in Arbil.

"In the prison, I saw many young men being tortured," added the 28-year-old, who declined to give his full name because he feared for his family's safety.

Mohammed said he was released from jail after his family pleaded with a judge, at which point he crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan with the help of smugglers.

Iraq has shied away from imposing punitive measures against Syria, where there are still regular civilian protests, though the focus has shifted to armed conflict with regime forces.

President Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq, by contrast, is governed by majority Shiite Muslims, but has substantial Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.

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