DAMASCUS // Leading opposition figure Meshaal Tammo was murdered in his home in northern Syria yesterday and another prominent political activist, Riad Seif was hospitalised after an assault on a street in Damascus.
The attacks came as at least nine other civilians were killed by security services in confrontations with protesters in Homs and on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, according to human rights groups.
Mr Tammo, head of the Kurdish Future movement and a significant figure in the Syrian National Council (SNC), a key opposition coalition, was shot dead by four masked gunmen. They stormed into his house in Qamishli, according to dissidents, also wounding his son and another Kurdish activist who was there at the time.
It is the first assassination of a well-known political opposition figure since the start of Syria's uprising in March. More than 2,900 people have been killed since the revolt began, according to the United Nations. But, while other dissidents have been arrested, jailed, beaten and wounded, Mr Tammo is the first to have died.
Thousands took to the streets of the Qamishli, in the Kurdish-dominated north-east of Syria, after hearing news of his death, later gathering at the hospital where his body was taken.
The charismatic 53-year old had only recently been released after serving almost three years in jail. He had played a major role in bringing together old guard opposition figures with the new generation of street protesters, while also forging links between those groups and the exiled opposition.
One of the initiatives he was involved in was a planned opposition meeting to take place in the protest neighbourhood of Qaboun in July. It would have broken new ground for Syrian dissidents, by bringing street activists into the open with established opposition politicians and groups meeting simultaneously in Turkey. There were also suggestions it would name a government-in-waiting as an alternative to president Bashar Al Assad.
That meeting never went ahead, however, when security forces opened fire on a demonstration outside the proposed venue the day before it was due to take place, killing 16 people, according to activists and local residents.
Unlike some other Kurdish political figures who continue to stay at arms length from the opposition - largely over disputes over recognition of a specifically Kurdish rather than Arab identity in any future Syrian state - Mr Tammo had said his concerns were about establishing a democratic country for all Syrians, insisting that would solve the "Kurdish question" too.
That stance had won him praise in opposition circles but had also annoyed established Kurdish political blocs who see guarantees over ethnic rights as paramount in the on-going struggle to end Syria's autocratic regime.
Another major Syrian opposition figure, former MP and prisoner of conscience Riad Seif, was beaten in the street in Midan yesterday, according to activists. Midan has been a major protest point in Damascus and is heavily policed on Fridays, the traditional day of demonstrations.
Mr Seif, 64, has cancer. After the assault, he was taken to hospital but had returned to his home last night, according to dissidents. A successful businessman who lost his wealth after trying to exposed corruption while serving as an MP, Mr Seif is one of the most respected Syrian opposition figures.Also yesterday Moscow issued its bluntest warning to Mr Al Assad that he must push through genuine reforms, just days after Russia blocked an attempt to pass a critical resolution at the United Nations Security Council that threatened sanctions against Syria.
"We are using our channels and are actively working with the Syrian leadership," Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said. "We are demanding that the Syrian leadership implement the necessary reforms,
"If the Syrian leadership is incapable of conducting such reforms, it will have to go, but this decision should be taken not in Nato or certain European countries. It should be taken by the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership."
Syria insists it is fighting an armed Islamic insurgency, and said militants wounded at least two security personnel yesterday.
* With additional reporting from Reuters