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Exclusive-Kurdish-led Syria force vows to meet tribal demands after clash

The head of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, speaks during an interview on Zoom with Reuters

By Maya Gebeily

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The head of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pledged to meet Arab tribal demands in eastern Syria and fix "mistakes" he said had been made in administering the region, seeking to defuse tensions that fuelled days of deadly fighting.

Scores of people have been killed since Arab tribal fighters revolted against the SDF in Deir al-Zor last week, the first such uprising since the Kurdish-led force drove Islamic State from the region more than four years ago with U.S. support.

Widely seen to reflect simmering Arab grievances, the revolt has prompted U.S. efforts to de-escalate, with the potential for Islamic State or President Bashar al-Assad to take advantage of any sustained conflict.

In an interview with Reuters, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said he had met tribal leaders and would honour their request to release dozens of local fighters who had revolted and been detained as the SDF quelled the unrest.

"We have a decision to issue a general amnesty for those involved," he said. "We already released half that were arrested, and we will release the rest," Abdi said in a video-call from northeast Syria.

Abdi promised to host a wide-ranging meeting with Arab tribal notables and other representatives from Deir al-Zor to address longstanding grievances, from education and the economy to security.

Arab residents have complained about the Kurdish-led administration, saying it discriminates against them and does not give them their share of the region's oil wealth.

Asked about how he was planning to address grievances, Abdi broadly acknowledged "flaws" in how inclusive local councils were of various tribes.

"There are gaps, and there were mistakes on the ground," he said.

'OPEN' TO CRITICISM

Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG and including Arab fighters, the SDF has been a major partner for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. It holds a quarter of Syria including oil fields and areas where some 900 U.S. troops are deployed.

Abdi pledged to restructure both the civilian council governing the province and the Deir al-Zor Military Council, an Arab detachment of the SDF, to make them more "representative of all the tribes and components in Deir al-Zor".

The fighting erupted after the SDF arrested the council's head, known as Abu Khawla, on charges of corruption and other violations. His tribal allies rose up in response.

The coalition called for an end to the violence, saying distractions from the fight against Islamic State increased the risk of its resurgence, and senior U.S. officials visited the area on Sunday.

Abdi said the SDF would not withdraw from the area.

"We are open to all criticisms, we will study them all and we will overcome them... and the result will be the return of SDF with all its components in an even stronger way," he said.

He also accused the Syrian government of a role in fomenting the trouble, saying his forces had arrested fighters linked to Damascus who had joined up with the tribal rebels, and that they would not be released through the general amnesty.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Tom Perry and Nick Macfie)