It was a trip Syria’s Ministry of Information had gone to some lengths to arrange: Taking foreign journalists to Homs, where government forces are fighting an opposition they call armed terrorists. However, if the regime minders had been hoping to portray a city under government control, then they most certainly failed. The death of an acclaimed French television correspondent was a stark reminder of what are routine dangers for ordinary people in Syria’s war.
Gilles Jacquier of France 2 was killed along with eight Syrians when mortar bombs or grenades impacted near them. Jacquier was the first Western journalist to die in what is the bloodiest chapter of the Arab spring as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues his brutal crackdown.
The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed so far as the result of protests, and that the killings have accelerated since the arrival of Arab League monitors two weeks ago to oversee a plan aimed at halting the bloodshed.
Jacquier was in one of two groups that had been escorted to Homs on Wednesday by government minders to showcase the regime’s version of the story. Very few foreign journalists have been allowed to enter the country for the past few months, but more visas have been granted recently, partly as a result of pressure from the Arab League’s controversial observer mission.
Homs, with a population of 1 million, is more a war zone than a city, with the majority Sunni population increasingly separate from the Alawite minority. It has suffered badly during the unrest. Parts of the city are without electricity or telephones and shortages are rife. Snipers on rooftops are a routine hazard.
The Guardian was also in Homs on Wednesday, but in a separate group from Jacquier, and until a few minutes before the attack had been at the same location, near the al-Ahali hospital in the Ikrameh quarter.
Film of the incident shot by the pro-regime Addounia TV showed chaotic scenes as the injured were carried into cars and taxis. One of Jacquier’s companions said a grenade fell close to the journalists after they had spoken to some young people and fled into a building. A Dutch journalist was among more than 25 people who were injured.
Joseph Eid, a photographer with the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, said the attack had come without warning.
“We were expecting there to be violence, yes, but we never expected there to be an attack. They had warned us that the two districts attack each other in the evening, they said that after three o’clock in the afternoon it’s dangerous, we were there at three, and it started, it kicked off,” he said.
Following unconfirmed reports that mortar bombs were used in the attack, the local Revolutionary Council blamed government forces — claiming that only the Syrian army had mortars. SANA, Syria’s official news agency, blamed “terrorists” for the attack and said that mortars had been used.
However, the Syrian Revolution General Commission said in a statement: “This is what the regime does to justify its attitude in front of the Arab observers ... and also to terrorize the media coverage of [the] Syrian revolution.”
France immediately demanded an investigation into the killing.
“Gilles Jacquier was just doing his journalist’s job by covering the violent events in Syria resulting from the regime’s unacceptable repression of the population,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the most hawkish of Western leaders on the Syrian crisis.