Kurdish cleric who disappeared in May found dead, thousands of Kurds take to the streets

A well-known Kurdish cleric who disappeared last month has been found in a morgue, prompting thousands of Kurds to take to the streets in his hometown in northeast Syria, Kurdish spokesmen and residents said Wednesday.

News of the death of Sheik Mohammed Mashouk al-Khaznawi caused Kurds to gather in mourning in Qamishli, a mainly Kurdish city 775 kilometers (448 miles) northeast of Damascus, two residents told The Associated Press separately.

Security forces were deployed to prevent any trouble in Qamishli, where Kurds rioted last year, resident Suleiman Youssef told The Associated Press by phone.

Al-Khaznawi is expected to be buried in the Kurdish cemetery on the outskirts of Qamishli late Wednesday. He used to give sermons in a local mosque.

Youssef, an Assyrian, said more than 5,000 Kurds waited in the streets for the arrival of al-Khaznawi's body. A second resident, Faisal Youssef, an official of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said at least 10,000 Kurds had taken to the streets.

Al-Khaznawi's body was taken to a Qamishli mosque for mourning prayers on Wednesday evening.

A senior official of the Yekiti Kurdish Party said al-Khaznawi was found in a hospital morgue in the city of Deir el-Zor, 458 kilometers (286 miles) northeast of Damascus. The cleric's relatives said his body bore signs of torture, party secretary-general Hassan Saleh told The Associated Press.

Saleh accused the Syrian government of being "fully responsible for an ugly crime," and called for an "honest and evenhanded committee" to investigate al-Khaznawi's death.

Syrian authorities have denied involvement al-Khaznawi's disappearance.

Faisal Youssef also blamed the government, saying "the authorities should have acted before Sheik al-Khaznawi's death because they are responsible for the people's security.

"Sheik al-Khaznawi is a personality well respected in the Syrian society," Youssef told the AP by phone.

The news of al-Khaznawi's death was announced through mosque loudspeakers in Qamishli, said Abdul-Hamid Darwish, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Al-Khaznawi, a scholar and strong proponent of Kurdish rights, headed the Islamic Center in Qamishli. He was visiting the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus when he disappeared.

Al-Khaznawi's son, Morad, said May 15 that several people, believed to be government's security agents, came to the center in the first week of May and took his father away, ostensibly to visit a sick man.

At least 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in clashes between Kurdish protesters and Syrian security forces in March 2004. The riots began with a brawl between Kurdish and Arab supporters of rival soccer teams before a match in Qamishli. They spread to the nearby city of Hasaka and Aleppo, the country's second-largest city.

Unrest is rare in Syria, where politics is tightly controlled. Security forces moved quickly to crush the disturbances, arresting about 2,000 people, according to members of the Kurdish community. Most were later freed.

There are about 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, a nation of 18.5 million, including about 160,000 who are denied Syrian citizenship. They often complain of harassment and persecution by security authorities.

Since coming to power in 2000, President Bashar Assad has freed hundreds of political prisoners, but he has also clamped down on pro-democracy activists, showing there are limits to dissent.

ALBERT AJI, Associated Press Writer

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