Paris demanded an investigation Wednesday after French television reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed in Syria, the first Western journalist to die since anti-regime protests erupted 10 months ago.
An AFP reporter at the scene saw a shell explode amid a group of journalists covering demonstrations in the city of Homs, a centre of opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rockets hit the group of journalists, killing Jacquier and six Syrians. The Observatory did not say who was responsible, but activists in Homs blamed authorities.
Several others were wounded in the blast, which occurred as the reporters were on a visit organised by the Syrian authorities.
One of those hurt was a Belgian journalist who was hit in the eye.
A Dutch freelance photographer was also wounded, the Dutch foreign ministry said, adding that he had been treated and already released from hospital.
Jacquier’s death was confirmed by his employer, the public television channel France 2.
The 43-year-old joined public television in 1991 and was an award-winning veteran who had covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Israel.
The Syrian information ministry said it was aware of an incident involving foreign journalists, but could not provide any further details.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the slain reporter and said he sent his condolences to Jacquier’s girlfriend who was with him in Syria.
“France expects the Syrian authorities to to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting,” Sarkozy said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe condemned what he called an “odious act” and called for an investigation.
He said the French ambassador in Damascus would travel “immediately” to Homs and asked the Syrian authorities to assist the other people who were accompanying the reporter when he died.
“We demand that an investigation be conducted in order to shed light on the circumstances of this incident,” Juppe added.
The executive editor of Jacquier’s television station, Thierry Thuillier, said he was “one of the best reporters in France 2, an exceptional man”.
The station said he had been authorised by the Syrian authorities to work in Homs and had a valid visa that allowed him to report from the country.
“They were not working undercover,” it said in a statement.
Jens Franssen, a reporter with Belgium’s VRT television, said around 15 journalists on the visit were in Homs, when “three or four grenades exploded near us.”
Militants in Homs blamed the authorities for the incident.
The United States expressed dismay over Jacquier’s death. A State Department spokeswoman said the Syrian president had failed to provide an environment hospitable to the media.
The European Union’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton condemned the killings and demanded an immediate enquiry into what happened.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also condemned the killings, saying they underscored “the terrible price being paid by the people of Homs, as well as the courage of journalists.”
Hague repeated his demand that Syria fulfill its commitments to the Arab League, which has sent observers to try to halt the deadly crackdown on protests, and he again called on Assad to step down.
Global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders also demanded an inquiry, and called on the Arab observers to play a role.
The International Press Institute, a Vienna-based media freedom group, said the death was a “tragic reminder of the constant dangers that journalists reporting from conflict zones face.
“We urge all parties in Syria, including the government and security services, to respect the right of journalists to work freely and safely.”
The European Broadcasting Union echoed the call, saying Syrian authorities and all governments “must protect freedom of expression and guarantee the security of international journalists”.
Bertrand Coq, a journalist with whom Jacquier in 2003 jointly won France’s top journalism prize, the Prix Albert Londres, paid tribute to his late colleague.
“Gilles was an excellent war reporter,” he said, noting that Jacquier took a bullet in the shoulder while on an assignment in the West Bank in 2003.