BEIRUT (AP) — A French TV cameraman became the first Western journalist killed in the 10-month-old Syrian uprising Wednesday, dying in a barrage of grenades during a government-sponsored trip to the restive city of Homs, officials and a witness said.
The violence came just hours after President Bashar Assad made a surprise appearance at a rally in the capital, Damascus, joining thousands of supporters in a show of confidence as the conflict enters a dangerous and violent new phase.
The killing of Gilles Jacquier, who worked for France-2 Television, was likely to become a rallying cry for both sides, as the regime and the opposition blame each other for a recent spate of mysterious attacks.
The government blamed “terrorists” for Wednesday’s attack, which it said also killed eight Syrians.
About 15 journalists were on the government trip when they were hit by several grenades, according to Jens Franssen, who was on the tour. “At some point, three or four (grenade) shells hit, very close to us,” Franssen told the Belgian VRT network.
Video footage posted on Youtube appeared to show the aftermath of the attack, with people frantically loading the injured into cars. There were pools of blood on the ground. The authenticity of the footage, however, could not be independently verified.
A Dutch freelance journalist was also wounded in Homs Wednesday, although it wasn’t immediately clear if he was part of the trip.
Jacquier, 43, was the first foreign journalist to be slain, Reporters Without Borders said. He had reported over the years from Afghanistan, Gaza, Congo, Iraq and Yemen, most recently for the investigative program Special Envoy, his network said.
“It’s up to Syrian authorities to ensure the security of international journalists on their territory, and to protect this fundamental liberty which is the freedom of information,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
During the uprising, several Syrian journalists have been killed or tortured as they tried to cover the revolt, which has proven the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty. With the U.N. estimate of more than 5,000 dead since March, it is among the bloodiest uprisings of the Arab Spring.
The revolt has become increasingly violent in recent months, but appears far from over. Some 400 people have been reported killed in the last three weeks alone.
At the start of the uprising, much of the violence involved Syrian security forces firing on unarmed, peaceful protesters. In recent months, an increasing number of army defectors and members of the opposition are taking up arms against the government.
Three recent blasts in Damascus, which the government said were suicide attacks, added a new and ominous dimension to a conflict that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The government said the explosions supported its claim that the uprising was the work of terrorists and conspirators. The opposition demanded an independent investigation, saying the regime is likely behind the blasts and using them to tarnish the uprising and scare people into submission.
Neither side has offered evidence for their claims, and it is all but impossible to operate independently in Syria. Syria has banned most foreign journalists except for those on government-escorted trips. Local reporters work under heavy restrictions.
As the conflict grinds on, largely outside the world’s gaze, Assad has appeared determined to show strength and confidence. He has made two public appearances in as many days this week — highly unusual for a leader who has stayed largely behind the scenes since March.
He showed up unexpectedly at the rally Wednesday, telling supporters that the “conspiracy” against his country is in its final stage.
Dressed more casually than usual in a jacket but no tie, the president told the cheering crowd that he wanted to draw strength from them. Television footage showed his smiling wife, Asma, and their two young children in the crowd in Umayyad Square.
“I have faith in the future and we will undoubtedly triumph over this conspiracy,” Assad said. “They are in the final stages of their conspiracy.”
Security guards surrounded him as supporters waved his portrait and shouted: “Shabiha forever, for the sake of your eyes, oh Assad.” The “shabiha” are feared pro-regime gunmen who have brutally suppressed anti-Assad protests.
Assad, 46, who inherited power from his father in 2000, on Tuesday gave his first speech since June, saying he would strike back with an “iron hand” at those who threaten his rule. Opponents say Assad is dangerously out of touch.
Meanwhile, the Arab League mission to assess whether the government is abiding by a Syrian-Arab agreement to end the crackdown came under fresh scrutiny after a former monitor said he quit in disgust because the regime was committing “war crimes” against its own people.
“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled,” Anwer Malek told Al-Jazeera.
“The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime,” Malek said, still wearing the orange vest used by monitors.
“The regime didn’t meet any of our requests. In fact, they were trying to deceive us and steer us away from what was really happening toward insignificant things,” he said. Since monitors started work Dec. 27, the violence only appears to have gotten worse.
There was no immediate comment from the Arab League. But Malek’s name was on a list of the observers who were sent to Syria last month, identified as working for the Paris-based Arab Committee for Human Rights.
An Arab official said the League has decided not to send any more monitors to Syria until the situation on the ground is clearer and Damascus can protect the monitors. The decision was made after two Kuwaiti monitors were lightly wounded Monday evening.
Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the Arab mission, saying it is giving Assad cover for his ongoing crackdown.
The observer mission’s Sudanese chief has raised particular concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Critics also say the mission is far too small — and too dependent on government escorts — to be effective. The regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors’ personal safety.
Keller reported from Paris. AP writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.
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