Calls grow for protection of journalists in Syria
Calls grew on Thursday for greater protection for journalists in Syria after a French reporter was killed by a shell during a government-organised trip to the flashpoint city of Homs.
France demanded an investigation into the death Gilles Jacquier, 43, who worked for France 2 television, while the US accused Syria of failing to provide an environment hospitable to the media.
Jacquier is the first Western reporter to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in March.
An AFP photographer said he died when a shell exploded on Wednesday amid a group of some 15 journalists covering demonstrations in Homs on a visit organised by the authorities.
Six Syrians were also reported killed, and several more people were said to have been wounded.
While anti-regime activists in Homs said the authorities had orchestrated the attack, state television said it was "a terrorist group" which had opened fire on the journalists and a gathering of regime supporters.
Wissam Tarif, an Arab campaigner with international activist non-governmental organisation Avaaz undermined the government's claims.
"The journalists were attacked in a heavily militarised regime stronghold. It would be hugely difficult for any armed opposition to penetrate the area and launch such a deadly attack," he said.
Tarif also said the incident was an "unacceptable breach of the Arab League protocol," to which Syria has committed itself and which requires journalists to have freedom to report across Syria.
"The regime has denied journalists free access to the country, forcing them to join press tours organised by the ministry of information and chaperoned closely by regime minders," he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement that "France expects the Syrian authorities to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe separately demanded that the circumstances of the death be clarified and reminded Syria of its duty to protect foreign journalists.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the attack while EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton joined global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in demanding a rapid inquiry.
The attack on the journalists came hours after President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Damascus to address cheering crowds of supporters.
"Without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans," Assad said during the rare public appearance in the capital's Omayyad Square.
The United Nations estimated last month that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown since March, many gunned down during peaceful street protests.
In a nearly two-hour televised speech on Tuesday, Assad vowed to crush "terrorism" with an iron fist.
"Regional and international parties who are trying to destabilise Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events," said the embattled leader.
That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing Syria towards civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting in the protests against his regime.
As the two sides remained polarised, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 2,000 students were demonstrating in the Damascus province town of Irbin on Thursday to demand an end to the regime and the "bringing to justice of the murderers of the Syrian people."
And Syrians were being called to demonstrate on Friday in support of the Free Syrian Army, which consists of deserters from the regular army and claims to have 40,000 men based in Turkey.
In Moscow, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said, "there is information that NATO members and some Arab states of the Persian Gulf, acting in line with the scenario seen in Libya, intend to turn the current interference with Syrian affairs into a direct military intervention."
In this instance, he said in an interview published on the website of the daily Kommersant, "the main strike forces will be supplied not by France, Britain and Italy, but possibly by neighbouring Turkey."
Washington and Ankara may already be working on plans for a no-fly zone to enable armed Syrian rebel units to build up, he said.
On Wednesday, US Vice President Joe Biden met the prime minister of crucial Gulf ally Qatar at the White House, and discussed the deepening violence in Syria, officials said.
"In particular, they condemned the ongoing violence in Syria perpetrated by the Assad regime and noted the significance of the Arab League observer mission's final report due on January 19," the White House said.
Critics say the mission has been completely outmanoeuvred by Damascus, with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood accusing it of covering up "crimes of the Syrian regime".
Referring to one incident, New York-based Human Rights Watch said two protesters were shot and wounded as they tried to meet observers in Jisr al-Shughur. It quoted witnesses as saying observers were in a nearby square, but left in a car after the shooting began.
In other developments, hundreds of Syrian and foreign activists were making a bid on Thursday to cross into Syria from Turkey to take humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
© 2012 AFP