French TV station: Journalist killed in Syria

French television reporter Gilles Jacquier is seen at an unknown location in this undated photo provided by France-2 Television Jan. 11, 2012, when Jacquier was killed in Homs, Syria.
AP Photo

Updated 2:51 p.m. ET

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.

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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.

CBS News producer Agnes Reau reports from Homs that the death happened at a hospital shortly after a CBS News crew departed from it. A group of journalists went to see what had happened after a mortar round hit the hospital's grounds when another round was fired, Reau reports.

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.