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BEIRUT – A French cameraman was killed Wednesday in Syria during a government-authorized trip to the restive city of Homs, the first Western journalist to be slain since the country’s uprising began 10 months ago, officials said.
The killing of Gilles Jacquier, 43, who worked for France-2 Television, was likely to become a rallying cry for both sides of the conflict, as President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition blame each other for a recent spate of mysterious attacks.
According to a reporter who was on the media trip, the group was hit by several grenades. As many as six Syrian civilians also were killed, but the figure could not be confirmed, activists said.
“France-2 Television has just learned with great pain about the death of reporter Gilles Jacquier in Homs, Syria, in circumstances that must still be clarified,” the network said.
A Dutch freelance journalist also was wounded in Homs, a Dutch Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said. She said the man was treated in a local hospital and released.
The circumstances of Wednesday’s violence were unclear, but reporter Jens Franssen said he was among about 15 journalists who were taken on a tour of the city. “At some point, three or four (grenade) shells hit, very close to us,” he told the Belgian VRT network.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Jacquier had been killed “in an attack” in Homs.
“It’s up to Syrian authorities to ensure the security of international journalists on their territory, and to protect this fundamental liberty which is the freedom of information,” he said in a statement.
Jacquier had reported over the years from conflict zones like Afghanistan, Gaza, Congo, Iraq and Yemen, most recently for the investigative program Special Envoy.
Thierry Thuillier, news director of France Televisions, the parent station of France-2, said Jacquier appeared to have been killed by a mortar or rocket as part of a series of attacks. Thuillier was speaking to French TV BFM.
Several Syrian journalists have been killed or tortured as they tried to cover the uprising, which has proven the most severe challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty.
The revolt has become increasingly violent in recent months. After three blasts in the capital, Damascus, since Dec. 23, the government has blamed “terrorists” and said the bloodshed backed up its claim that the uprising was the work of terrorists and conspirators.
The opposition denied that and demanded independent investigations. They say the regime itself is likely behind the violence, as a way to tarnish the uprising.
In a rare public appearance, Assad told thousands of cheering supporters at a pro-regime rally in the capital Wednesday that the “conspiracy” against his country is in its final stage.
Dressed more casually than usual in a jacket but no tie, the president told the crowd that he wanted to draw strength from them. Television footage showed his wife, Asma, and their two young children in the crowd during the surprise appearance in Umayyad Square.
“I have faith in the future and we will undoubtedly triumph over this conspiracy,” Assad said, apparently determined to show strength and confidence as the conflict in Syria enters a new and dangerous phase. “They are in the final stages of their conspiracy.”
Security guards surrounded him as supporters waved his portrait and shouted: “Shabiha forever, for the sake of your eyes, oh Assad.” The “shabiha” are pro-regime gunmen who have brutally suppressed anti-Assad protests.
Assad, 46, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has blamed the revolt on foreign-backed terrorists and conspirators. On Tuesday, he gave his first speech since June and said he would strike back at those who threaten his regime with an “iron hand.”
Opponents say Assad is dangerously out of touch.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Syria had stepped up killings of opponents since Arab monitors arrived in the country in late December. The team is assessing whether the government is abiding by its agreement to an Arab League plan to end the military crackdown on dissent.
On Tuesday, diplomats quoted U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe as saying about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier U.N. estimate of more than 5,000 dead since March. Rice said that rate was even higher than before the monitors arrived and a clear indication the Syrian government was stepping up the violence.
The Arab League mission came under fresh scrutiny Wednesday after a former monitor said he quit in disgust because the regime was committing “war crimes” against its own people.
“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled,” Anwer Malek told Al-Jazeera in an interviewed broadcast late Tuesday. “The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime,” Malek said, still wearing the orange vest used by monitors.
According to Al-Jazeera’s transcript of the interview, Malek said the regime is committing “a series of crimes against its people.”
“The regime didn’t meet any of our requests, in fact they were trying to deceive us and steer us away from what was really happening toward insignificant things,” he said in the interview. “They didn’t withdraw their tanks from the streets they just hid them and redeployed them after we left.”
There was no immediate comment from the Arab League. But Malek’s name was on a list of the observers who were sent to Syria last month. He was identified as a Tunisian working for the Paris-based Arab Committee for Human Rights.
An Arab official said the League has decided not to send anymore monitors to Syria until the situation on the ground is clearer and Damascus can protect the monitors. The decision was made after two Kuwaiti monitors were lightly wounded Monday evening.
Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the Arab League mission, saying it is giving Assad cover for his ongoing crackdown. The observer mission’s Sudanese chief has raised particular concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Critics also say the mission is far too small — and too dependent on government escorts — to be effective. The regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors’ personal safety.
Keller reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.