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Syria Faces Renewed International Pressure


News of the missile testing comes at a time when Syria is under international pressure. It's already been forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon, and now the government is denying charges that it was involved in two high-profile murders. One victim was a Lebanese journalist; the other was a Kurdish cleric. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Damascus.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Syria issued an angry denial last night after a carefully targeted car bomb killed newspaper columnist Samir Kassir in the Lebanese capital. Kassir was an outspoken critic of Syria's long military and political domination of Lebanon. And within moments of his assassination, Lebanese opposition leaders blamed Syria for the murder. Damascus denounced what it called rash accusations. The Syrian government said it did not interfere in Lebanese affairs and added that it withdrew the last of its troops from Lebanon more than a month ago. In response to charges it was involved in the slaying of the most senior cleric for Syria's long oppressed Kurdish minority, Syria also broadcast last night what it said was the confessions of his killers on state television.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Sheik Mashouq al-Khaznawi disappeared more than three weeks ago after last being seen alive here in Damascus. Syrian authorities say they captured two of his kidnappers who later led them to the cleric's body. It was buried in the town of Deir al-Zour, officials said. Eyewitnesses say tens of thousands of Kurds participated in a funeral for the cleric in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli, which was the site of bloody clashes between Kurds and Syrian security forces last year. Government Minister Buthaina Shaaban suggested Khaznawi's death was the result of a family dispute.

Ms. BUTHAINA SHAABAN (Government Minister): It's also unfortunate what happened, and his son said that the Syrian authorities were helping all the time trying to find out what happened. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a very vicious problem in the family.

WATSON: But Khaznawi's relatives say they do not believe the government's explanation, and several members of banned Kurdish political parties continue to accuse the Syrian regime of having a hand in the cleric's killing. They say Khaznawi may have angered Damascus when he recently met with the leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood Party in Europe. Syrian officials told foreign journalists not to travel to Qamishli. Hassan Saleh, a leader of the banned Kurdish Yakiti Party, called for an independent investigation during this interview with an Arab satellite news network.

Mr. HASSAN SALEH (Kurdish Yakiti Party Leader): (Through Translator) We demand the formation of a fair and neutral committee that includes Kurdish lawyers to disclose the whole truth and to end the tension that already exists in Kurdish areas because of the authority's disregard for three million Kurds whose rights are denied.

WATSON: Analysts here say these controversies could not come at a worse time for the Syrian government. Economists estimate Syria suffers from 20 percent unemployment, and Damascus currently faces sanctions and intense diplomatic pressure from Washington, which accuses Syria of allowing insurgents to cross the border into neighboring Iraq. President Bashar Assad is to host a congress of the ruling Ba'ath Party next week that many Syrians hope will introduce political and economic reforms. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.
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