Gunmen raid Syrian TV station, kill employees
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Gunmen broke through the gates of a Syrian TV channel headquarters on Wednesday, bombing buildings and shooting dead three journalists and four security guards, state media said, in one of the boldest attacks yet on a symbol of the authoritarian state.
President Bashar Assad declared late on Tuesday that his country was at war and the attack on Ikhbariya's offices – located 20km south of the capital – as well as overnight fighting on the outskirts of Damascus show that 16 months of violence is now rapidly encroaching on the capital.
Footage aired on Ikhbariya, which resumed broadcasting shortly after the attack, showed bullet holes pockmarked a two-story concrete building and pools of blood on the floor.
One building made of corrugated iron had been almost completely destroyed and flames licked at the metal frame.
"I heard a small explosion then a huge explosion and gunmen ran in. They ransacked the offices and entirely destroyed the newsroom," an employee who works at the offices in the town of Drousha told state media at the scene.
The attack was criticized by Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Nadim Houry, who said the media should not become targets in the conflict.
#Syria: media channels and personnel should not come under attack. Al-Akhbariya attack should be condemned by all parties
— Nadim Houry (@nadimhoury) June 27, 2012
Syrian press is tightly regulated by the Ministry of Information. Although Ikhbariya is privately owned, opponents of Assad say it is aligned with the government's position.
Syria's Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi slammed the attack as a "massacre."
"This massacre won't go unpunished and the broadcast of the Syrian al-Ikhbaryia Satellite will not stop and we hold the EU and Arab and International organizations responsible for this massacre," SANA quoted him as saying.
Syria at war
"We live in a real state of war from all angles," Assad told a cabinet he appointed on Tuesday in a speech broadcast on state television. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."
The declaration that marks a change of rhetoric from Assad, who had long dismissed the uprising against him as the work of scattered militants funded from abroad.
Assad's speech left little room for compromise. He denounced the West, which "takes and never gives, and this has been proven at every stage."
The United Nations accuses Syrian forces of killing more than 10,000 people during the conflict, which began with a popular uprising and has built up into an armed insurgency against four decades of rule by Assad and his father.
Video – which could not be independently verified – published by activists on Tuesday recorded heavy gunfire and explosions in suburbs of Damascus. A trail of fresh blood on a sidewalk in the suburb of Qudsiya led into a building where one casualty was taken.
Syria's state news agency SANA said "armed terrorist groups" had blocked the old road from Damascus to Beirut on Tuesday.
The UN peacekeeping chief said it was too dangerous for a UN observer team, which suspended operations this month, to resume monitoring a ceasefire. The truce, part of a peace plan backed by international envoy Kofi Annan, has since been abandoned in all but name.
SANA said dozens of rebels were killed or wounded and others arrested in fighting on the old Beirut road. Government forces seized rocket launchers, sniper rifles, machineguns and a huge amount of ammunition, it said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which compiles reports from rebels, said 135 people were killed across Syria on Tuesday, making it one of the bloodiest days of the conflict. Its toll included 87 civilians it said had been killed, including 28 in Qudsiya.
It described heavy fighting near the headquarters of the Republican Guard in Qudsiya, and in other Damascus suburbs of al-Hama and Mashrou' Dumar, just 9 km from the capital.
Accounts from the rebels and the government cannot be verified because access for journalists is restricted.
Turkey backs off
In neighboring Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said his armed forces would react to any threat from Syria near the border, but stopped short of taking further action after Syria last week downed a Turkish warplane it alleged entered its airspace illegally.
"Our rational response should not be perceived as weakness, our mild manners do not mean we are a tame lamb," he told a meeting of his parliamentary party. "Everybody should know that Turkey's wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable."
NATO member states, summoned by Turkey to an urgent meeting in Brussels, condemned Syria over the incident in which two airmen were killed. The Western alliance called the incident "unacceptable" but stopped short of threatening retaliation.
NATO's cautious wording demonstrated the fear of Western powers as well as Turkey that armed intervention in Syria could stir sectarian war across the region.
So far there has been no sign of an appetite for intervention like that carried out last year by NATO against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
A Turkish official said Ankara's ambassador had not asked the NATO envoys for action "at this stage". Erdogan's speech was seen in Turkey as less belligerent than it might have been.
"Those who want war may be disappointed by the prime minister's speech," Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote. "But a big part of society breathed a sigh of relief."
Nevertheless, Turkish officials say they are ready for scenarios that include a possible need to protect civilians near the border.
A Turkish official who asked not to be identified said: "For Turkey there are two bad scenarios: one, a mass influx of refugees and two, large-scale massacres in Syria."
"Ankara has not taken a decision for military intervention or a humanitarian corridor at the moment. But if these are needed, everybody would prefer that they will be done with international legitimacy. However, if things go really badly we have to be ready for any kind of eventuality," he added.
Russia calls for restraint
Russia, which has acted as Assad's main defender in the UN Security Council, called for restraint and said shooting down the aircraft should not be "viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action."
Syria said it had no choice but to destroy the plane as it entered Syrian airspace flying low and at high speed. It found out it was Turkish only after the engagement. Turkey admitted its aircraft entered Syrian airspace only briefly by mistake.
Turkey is the base for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and shelters more than 30,000 refugees – a number Erdogan worries could rise sharply as fighting spreads. Rebel soldiers move regularly across the border and defectors muster inside Turkey.
Moscow has close relations with Damascus and has a naval base at Syria's port city of Tartus close to the spot where the jet was downed. Some defense experts said the Turkish plane could have been testing Russian-supplied Syrian air defenses.
Moscow-based defense think-tank CAST said Russia was expected to deliver nearly half a billion dollars worth of air defense systems, repaired helicopters and fighter jets to Syria this year despite international pressure to halt the arms sales.
(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, SANA)