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French journalist killed in Syria

A French television correspondent was killed Wednesday while reporting in the restive Syrian city of Homs, the first Western journalist to die in a nearly 10-month uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Syrian authorities and opposition supporters traded accusations of responsibility for the shelling that killed Gilles Jacquier, 43, an award-winning correspondent for the television channel France 2.

The government called it a terrorist crime and said eight Syrians were also killed. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in Britain that the attack took place in a neighborhood loyal to Assad and accused the government of trying to intimidate journalists.

Across the country, as many as 24 people were reported killed Wednesday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of protest groups.

The Homs attack underscored the growing bloodshed in Syria even as about 165 observers from the Arab League who arrived in the country after the government pledged to end a violent crackdown on the uprising.

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The 22-member regional bloc said it would not send any more monitors to Syria until the government could ensure their security. The decision came after two members of the observer mission suffered minor injuries Monday when Assad supporters mobbed their vehicles in the port city of Latakia.

In an interview with Al Jazeera television, Anwer Malek, a former monitor from Algeria, called the mission “a farce” and said he had quit in disgust. Still wearing the orange vest used by the observers, he said Syrian officials “didn’t meet any of our requests” and “fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime.”

United Nations officials say the killings, which have already claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people, have increase since the arrival of the monitors. The government disputes the figure and says most of the casualties have been members of the security forces, who it says are being attacked by foreign-backed Islamic militants and armed gangs.

During a surprise appearance Wednesday at a rally in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Assad told a large crowd of cheering supporters that they would “triumph over this conspiracy.” It was his second speech in as many days in an unusual show of strength for a leader who until this week had not addressed the nation since June.

The Syrian government has barred most foreign journalists from Syria since major antigovernment protests erupted in March. But some have been admitted since the arrival last month of the Arab League observers, who are in Syria to verify compliance with a regional peace initiative that includes a demand for free access to foreign journalists.

France 2 said Jacquier was among a group of journalists on a government-authorized visit to Homs, a city that has been at the center of the uprising.

Journalists who were on the trip said Syrian officials had taken them to a neighborhood dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect and were covering a demonstration when shelling started.

“It was chaos,” Jens Franssen of Belgian public radio station VRT was quoted as saying in French news reports. “People were shouting. There was blood on the ground. Nobody knew what was happening. I went into an apartment.... In the stairwell I saw a French colleague from France 2 who was lying there dead.”

Syrian state television showed dazed survivors being carried into cars, including a woman with blood streaming down her face.

Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said the journalists had been meeting with Syrians who were victims of what he described as “terrorism by armed elements in the area.” He said the government was looking into the attack and would “continue to provide all assistance to journalists.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe condemned “this odious act” and demanded an investigation.

“It is up to the Syrian authorities to ensure the security of international journalists on their territory and to protect the fundamental liberty that is freedom of information,” he said in a statement.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to Jacquier’s “exemplary career” and sent condolences to his partner, who he said was with the journalist in Homs.

Jacquier, a former champion skier, had reported on the conflicts in Kosovo, Gaza, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently for the investigative program “Special Envoy.”

“He was afraid of nothing,” said colleague Bertrand Coq, who shared the 2003 Albert Londres audiovisual prize with Jacquier for coverage of the Palestinians’ second intifada and the Israeli army operation.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Sandels is a special correspondent.

Special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.


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