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Journalists Killed In Syria, Sparking International Condemnation

Syrian activists wave flags during a sit-in protest outside the parliament building in Damascus on February 21.
The killing of two Western journalists along with dozens of civilians in Syria has sparked international condemnation.

A prominent American war correspondent working for a British newspaper and a French photojournalist were killed on February 22 as Syrian forces continued shelling opposition strongholds in the central city of Homs.

Activists said that in all, some 65 people were killed nationwide as President Bashar al-Assad's security forces continued their assault on the opposition and rebel bases across the country.

"Sunday Times" correspondent Marie Colvin, 56, and French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28, died when a shell hit a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr district in Homs.

Homs has been under siege by Syrian government forces for nearly 20 days. The city has been an opposition stronghold since protests against Assad's regime began a year ago.

European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton strongly condemned the killings of the two journalists and others in Homs, describing them as "crimes."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France held the Syrian government "responsible and accountable" for the safety of its citizens there.

Three other Western journalists were wounded in the shelling of Baba Amr, including a second French journalist, Edith Bouvier, who was reportedly in critical condition.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said governments around the world had the responsibility "to redouble efforts to stop the Assad regime's despicable campaign of terror in Syria."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the journalists' killing as "another example of the shameless brutality of the Assad regime."

Russia, which has opposed Western efforts to condemn the Syrian regime, also said it "resolutely condemns and is seriously concerned" by the killings. The Foreign Ministry said that "this tragic event once again confirms the need for all the sides of the Syrian conflict to end the violence."

Syrian authorities said they were not aware Colvin and Ochlik had entered the country and urged foreign reporters in Syria to register with the government.

Since the beginning of protests against Assad's regime, the Syrian government has barred foreign media from operating freely in the country.

Increasing Violence Takes Toll

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on February 22 that the death toll in Syria since protests against Assad's regime began in March last year has reached more than 7,600. It says that includes more than 5,500 civilians, 400 rebel fighters, and about 1,700 soldiers and police.

Opposition activists in Syria say government troops have killed more than 100 people since February 21 -- mostly in the provinces of Homs and Idlib.

Activists say at least 44 were killed by troops who launched a fresh assault late on February 21 near the border with Turkey, targeting areas where rebels in the Free Syrian Army are positioned.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said those deaths include 27 young civilian men who were shot in the head or chest by troops and militiamen loyal to Asssad in the villages of Idita, Iblin, and Balshon in Idlib Province.

In Homs, which came under intense shelling by government forces overnight, activists reported at least 56 deaths.

Due to restrictions on foreign media imposed by the Syrian regime, the reports could not be independently confirmed.

Truce Efforts

The latest wave of violence comes as the Red Cross tries to negotiate daily cease-fires to allow in aid to civilians in beleaguered cities like Homs.

Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the cease-fire should last two hours a day to allow Red Cross staff and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers to get aid in and the wounded out.

Washington, meanwhile, has refused to rule out eventually providing arms to rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

"We don't believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria. What we don't want to see is the spiral of violence increase. That said, if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures," State Department spokeswoman Nuland said.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was searching for a candidate to name as a humanitarian coordinator for Syria, whose role could evolve into seeking a political solution to the conflict.

Western and Arab powers that are openly seeking Assad's downfall are preparing for the inaugural meeting of a "Friends of Syria" contact group in Tunisia on February 24.

Russia said it would not attend the Friends of Syria meeting because the Syrian government would not be represented.

"Russia wants all members of the international community to act as friends of all the Syrian people, not just a part of it," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Tunisia meeting would show how isolated Damascus is and offer support for the "brave Syrian people."

"This is a challenging process but mostly for the people of Syria, who everyday are living with the results of this brutal crackdown they're suffering under. I don't want to get ahead of the meeting that will be a very large gathering that will demonstrate once again international unity in the face of the Assad regime," Clinton said on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Mexico.

"We'll send a clear message to Russia, China, and others who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now unfortunately making the wrong choices. And I think that we'll have more to say as we go through this week and after the meeting," Clinton added.

Russia and China have vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions condemning Damascus for the crackdown that has left at least 6,000 dead, according to the United Nations.

Much of the opposition to Assad comes from the Sunni majority, while much of his support comes from minorities like his own Alawite sect.
With AFP, AP, and Reuters reporting

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