Assad promises victory; French journalist killed in Syria violence
BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed on Wednesday to vanquish “foreign conspirators” plotting to end his rule and a Frenchman became the first foreign journalist to be killed in 10 months of unrest that has cost thousands of lives.
“France 2 television has just learned with a great deal of sorrow of the death of reporter Gilles Jacquier in Homs,” the broadcaster said. It did not have details of how the reporter, invited to Syria by the government, had died.
Syrian state television said eight other people were killed in the incident in the troubled city, which it blamed on a “terrorist group”.
A Belgian reporter who was there told Reuters several mortar rounds or grenades had landed in the area. “There was a lot of chaos, blood, hysteria,” he said.
Syria barred most foreign media soon after anti-Assad protests began in March, but more journalists have been admitted since the Arab League sent monitors to check if the authorities were complying with an Arab plan to halt the bloodshed.
“Gilles Jacquier was just doing his journalist job by covering the violent events in Syria resulting from the regime’s unacceptable repression of the population,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Earlier, a smiling Assad, in a dark jacket and open-necked shirt, greeted thousands of rapturous supporters in a Damascus square, only a day after breaking a six-month public silence.
The crowd shouted “Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad”, a reference to loyalist militiamen, mostly members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their part in suppressing protests against the president.
Assad’s wife Asma and their two children joined him for his surprise appearance in the capital’s central Umayyad Square.
“I belong to this street,” said Assad, 46, adding that Syria faced foreign conspirators. “We will make this phase the end for them and their plans. We are going to win without any doubt.”
His remarks followed a 100-minute speech on Tuesday in which he mocked the Arab League, vowed to hit “terrorists” with an iron fist and promised reforms, but with no hint that he would relinquish the power he inherited from his father in 2000.
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to halt its crackdown on protests, sent in an observer mission in December but this has not stopped the bloodletting.
The League said on Wednesday it was delaying sending more monitors after an attack on one team this week in the port of Latakia in which 11 observers were lightly injured.
It blamed protesters but said the authorities should have protected the team.
The mission hit more trouble when one monitor accused Syria of war crimes, saying the mission was a “farce”, a day after the US ambassador to the United Nations said a UN official had told the Security Council the killings had gathered pace since the monitors arrived.
A second monitor, who declined to be named, told Reuters he was also planning to leave because the mission was proving ineffectual in ending civilians’ suffering.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the mission could not go on indefinitely and noted its mandate ends on January 19. She also dismissed Assad’s speech on Tuesday as “chillingly cynical”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people had been killed in Kafr Nabouda, in Hama province, where troops staging raids fought army deserters.
The British-based group put Tuesday’s civilian death toll at 27, including 15 in the city of Deir Ezzor and 10 in Homs, plus four army defectors.
The Arab League monitor, Anwar Malek, said he had resigned because the mission was powerless to prevent what he said were the “scenes of horror” he had seen in Homs.
“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled,” the Algerian told Al Jazeera English television. “The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime”.
“The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people.”
The United Nations has said more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in unrest that erupted in March, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, while the authorities accuse armed Islamists of killing 2,000 members of the security forces.
Washington’s UN envoy, Susan Rice, said a UN official told the Security Council on Tuesday that about 400 people had been killed since the Arab monitors began work on December 26, which she said was a much higher daily toll than before they arrived.
The United States said it was ordering a further cut in its embassy staff in Syria.