Wednesday, October 29, 2008

U.S. Helicopter Attack On Syria Kills Eight

theaustralian.news.com

US MILITARY helicopters launched a rare attack yesterday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the Syrian Government condemned as "serious aggression".

A US military official said the attack by special forces had targeted a network of al-Qa'ida-linked foreign fighters moving through Syria into Iraq. The Americans had been unable to shut down the network in the area because Syria was out of the US military's reach.

"We are taking matters into our own hands," the official said.

The cross-border raid came just days after the commander of US forces in western Iraq said US troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an "uncontrolled" gateway for fighters entering Iraq.

A Syrian government statement said the US helicopter gunships attacked Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, 8km inside the Syrian border. Four military helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction and fired on the workers inside, killing them. Four children were among the dead, the Syrians reported.

A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and the US troops left the aircraft and fired at a building. He said the helicopters flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories. Another witness said four helicopters were used in the US attack.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there have been some instances in which US troops crossed the 600km Syria-Iraq border in pursuit of militants, or US warplanes violated Syria's airspace. But yesterday's attack was the first conducted by aircraft and on such a large scale.

Syria's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the US and Iraqi charges d'affaires to protest over the strike.

"Syria condemns this aggression and holds the American forces responsible for this attack and all its repercussions. Syria also calls on the Iraqi Government to shoulder its responsibilities and launch an immediate investigation into this serious violation and prevent the use of Iraqi territory for aggression against Syria," a government statement said in Damascus.

Syrian state television broadcast footage showing blood on the floor of the construction site.

The area attacked is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to support the Sunni insurgency.

The network of foreign fighters sends militants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East to Syria, where elements of the Syrian military are in league with al-Qa'ida and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, a US military official said.

While US forces have had considerable success in shutting down the "rat lines" in Iraq, the Syrian area has been out of reach, the official said.

US major general John Kelly said last week that Iraq's western borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were fairly tight as a result of good policing by security forces in those countries, but Syria was a "different story".

He said the US was helping construct a sand barrier and ditches along the border.

The White House in August approved similar raids by US special forces from Afghanistan crossing the border into Pakistan to attack al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters there.

Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq enter through Syria, according to US intelligence. Foreign fighters carrying cash have been al-Qa'ida in Iraq's chief source of income, contributing more than 70 per cent of the operating budgets in one sector in Iraq, according to documents captured on the Syrian border last year.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused the US earlier this year of not giving his country the equipment needed to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. He said Washington feared Syria could use such equipment against Israel.

Although Syria has long been viewed by the White House as a destabilising country in the Middle East, in recent months Damascus has been trying to change its image and end years of Western seclusion.

President Bashar Assad has pursued indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey, and says he wants direct talks next year. Syria has also agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon, a country it used to dominate, and has worked harder at stemming the flow of militants into Iraq.

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