Syria said on Thursday that it will probe the death of a top French television reporter, as the opposition accused it of “liquidating” journalists to hush up its lethal 10-month crackdown on dissent.
State news agency SANA announced the investigation as the Arab League said two of its observers in Syria quit their posts and activists criticised their mission to monitor the regime’s implementation of a peace deal.
France, the EU and global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders had called on Damascus to investigate the death of Gilles Jacquier, who was killed on Wednesday during a government-organised trip to the protest hub of Homs.
SANA said the commission of inquiry would consist of a judge, the head of criminal security in Homs, two weapons experts and a representative from the France 2 television channel Jacquier worked for.
Interior Minister Adnan Mahmud, quoted by SANA, denounced the “terrorist attack against foreign journalists… (which) will not prevent us from continuing our cooperation with the media for them to report the reality.”
The award-winning Jacquier, 43, was the first Western reporter to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted last March.
An AFP photographer said he was killed when a shell exploded among some 15 journalists covering demonstrations in Homs. Eight Syrians were killed, said SANA, and several other people were wounded.
The opposition Syrian National Council denounced the “murder,” saying it was a “dangerous sign that the authorities have decided to physically liquidate journalists in an attempt to silence neutral and independent media.”
Anti-regime activists in Homs also said the authorities had orchestrated the attack, while state television blamed “a terrorist group” for firing on the journalists and regime supporters.
Wissam Tarif, an Arab campaigner with the activist organisation Avaaz, also disputed the government’s claims.
“The journalists were attacked in a heavily militarised regime stronghold. It would be hugely difficult for any armed opposition to penetrate the area and launch such a deadly attack,” he said.
Tarif called the incident an “unacceptable breach of the Arab League protocol” to which Syria has committed itself and which requires journalists to have freedom to report across Syria.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy had said Paris “expects the Syrian authorities to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting.”
Wednesday’s attack came hours after President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Damascus to address cheering supporters.
In a speech on Tuesday, he had vowed to crush “terrorism” with an iron fist, saying foreign parties were trying to destabilise Syria.
That prompted opposition movements to charge he was pushing Syria towards civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the bloodletting.
Critics say Assad’s government has completely outmanoeuvred the Arab observer mission, which the opposition Muslim Brotherhood has accused of covering up “crimes of the Syrian regime.”
The operations chief of the Arab mission said two observers, an Algerian and a Sudanese, had left their roles, a day after an Algerian monitor who quit was accused of making unfounded claims about the operation.
“Two monitors have excused themselves, an Algerian and a Sudanese,” Syria operations chief Adnan Khodeir said at Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
He said the Algerian had quit “for health reasons,” and the Sudanese “for personal reasons.”
On Wednesday, Algerian Anwar Malek told Doha-based Al-Jazeera he had quit the mission and accused Syria’s regime of committing war crimes and duping his colleagues.
“What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people,” he told Al-Jazeera.
“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled. The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime,” he said.
But the head of the mission slammed Malek’s claims as “baseless,” saying he had not joined other observers in the field.
“What observer Anwar Malek said on a satellite television is baseless,” General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, former head of Sudanese military intelligence, who leads the operations in Syria, said in a statement.
“Malek was deployed to Homs among a team but for six days he did not leave his room and did not join members of the team on the ground, pretending he was sick.”
Dabi echoed remarks by an unnamed Arab League official who said Malek was bedridden throughout his assignment in Homs and his accusations unfounded.
Opposition activists said they were disappointed by the Arab mission, but fear its failure to halt the crackdown could lead to foreign intervention.
“The Arab observer mission is disappointing. At the technical level, they are not well-equipped and don’t even have recorders to take the statements of witnesses,” said Fayez Sara, a secular activist and former political prisoner.
“They are not able to cover several parts of the country because the protocol doesn’t guarantee them freedom of movement.”
In December, the United Nations estimated more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown since March.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces killed 18 people across the country Thursday, while SANA reported eight law enforcement members killed when “terrorists” attacked their bus in Idlib.
Syrians were being called to demonstrate on Friday in support of the Free Syrian Army, which consists of deserters from the regular army and claims to have 40,000 men based in Turkey.