x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Two journalists killed in Homs shelling

Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when shells from Syrian government troops hit the house they were staying in, activists say.

AMMAN // Syrian troops and militia loyal to President Bashar Al Assad captured and then shot dead 27 young men in northern villages, while two foreign journalists were killed in shelling of the city of Homs, activists said today.

The two journalists were killed when shells hit the house they were staying in, activists and witnesses said. They were named as Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

A witness told Reuters by phone that shells hit the house where the journalists were staying and a rocket hit them as they were escaping.

A Homs-based activist, Omar Shaker, also said two other journalists were wounded, including a photographer for the Sunday Times and a Spanish reporter.

He said the journalists were killed when several rockets hit a garden of a house used by activists and journalists in the Baba Amr area of the city, which has come under weeks of heavy bombardment by Syrian forces. Mr Shaker said the bodies were taken to a makeshift hospital in Baba Amr.

The journalists' deaths came a day after Rami Al Sayyed, a prominent activist and citizen journalist in Baba Amr who was famous for posting online videos, was killed in a rocket attack.

Al Sayyed, 26, was hit "while taking a family to the makeshift hospital," said Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, adding that he died after bleeding for more than two hours. "Today there will be no live broadcast because Rami is gone," Mr Abdullah said.

The UN estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in repression by Mr Assad's regime against a popular uprising that began 11 months ago. Syrian activists, however, put the death toll at more than 7,300.

Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said the attacks on journalists show the "increasingly intolerable repression" by Syrian forces.

Violence continues to spread. Several YouTube videos taken by activists in Idlib, which could not be independently confirmed, showed bodies of young men with bullet wounds and hands tied lying dead in streets.

The men, all civilians, were mostly shot in the head or chest yesterday in their homes or in streets in the villages of Idita, Iblin and Balshon in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.

"Military forces chased civilians in these villages, arrested them and killed them without hesitation. They concentrated on male youths and whoever did not manage to escape was to be killed," the organisation said in a statement.

"Responsibility for this massacre lies with the general commander of the military and armed forces, Bashar Al Assad," the statement said, adding that only one youth survived the shootings.

One video shows the body of three youths, one visibly shot in the chest, on the floor of a house in Balshon.

"This is martyr Hassan Abdel Qadi Al Saeed, his brother Hussein and [their relative] Bashir Mohammed Al Saeed. They were liquidated by Assad's forces in the February 21 massacre," a voice of a man showing the bodies says.

The raids came as the United States appeared to open the door to eventually arming the Syrian opposition, saying that if a political solution to the crisis was impossible it might have to consider other options.

The comments, made by officials at both the White House and the US State Department yesterday, marked a shift in emphasis by Washington, which so far has stressed a policy of not arming the opposition and has said little about alternatives.

"We still believe that a political solution is what's needed in Syria," Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, said.

"We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarisation of Syria, because that could take the country down a dangerous path. But we don't rule out additional measures."

Asked if the United States was shifting its stance on arming the rebels, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington did not want to see the violence increase and was concentrating on political efforts to halt the bloodshed.

"That said ... if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures," she said, declining to elaborate.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, will meet representatives of some 70 countries and organisations in Tunis on Friday for the first "Friends of Syria" meeting to coordinate the international community's next steps in response to the nearly year-long uprising against Mr Al Assad.

The United States and its allies hope the Tunis conference will allow them to begin drawing up a plan for Syria after Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed Arab League peace plan at the UN Security Council.

With both Russia and Iran firmly backing Mr Assad's government, political analysts say tacit US support for arming rebel fighters could be risky given Syria's complex ethnic and religious make-up and strategically important position.

In Syria yesterday, activists said Mr Assad's forces killed more than 60 people in attacks on villages and an artillery barrage in Homs. The Red Cross called for daily ceasefires to allow in urgently needed aid.

A Syrian opposition figure who managed to get into Homs appealed for international help.

"The sound of bombardment and sniper fire are echoing across the city," Moulham Al Jundi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told Reuters from Homs.

"The army prevents first aid or medical supplies from going in and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day. There has been no mobile phone service for three weeks," said Mr Jundi, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia and was smuggled into Homs.

"Civilians need safe zones and a way has to be found to ensure that medicine and basic supplies reach Homs. There are no hospitals, no schools, no work, no government departments open and most shops are shut."

A delegation from the Syrian National Council, the main Syrian opposition grouping, is due to meet Red Cross officials in Geneva today.

Activists' accounts of the violence could not be independently verified. The government bars most foreign journalists from Syria.

Official media said government forces were targeting "armed terrorist groups who have been terrifying citizens and attacking security forces and robbing public and private property".