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Syria offers 'deep regret' for French journalist's death

From Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 8:00 AM EST, Thu January 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A friend calls France 2's Gilles Jacquier fearless
  • He died in a mortar attack in Homs on Wednesday
  • Jacquier was on a government-organized trip to the embattled city
  • He won an award for a documentary on the Tunisian revolt in 2011

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Syria's government blamed an "armed terrorist group" for the mortar attack it said killed an award-winning French journalist and eight Syrians in the strife-torn city of Homs on Wednesday.

Gilles Jacquier of the France 2 TV network died when a mortar shell struck the pro-government rally he was attending as part of a government-authorized tour of Homs, the network said. He is the first Western journalist to die in the 10-month-old uprising in Syria.

Jacquier and his photographer were in Homs, a city that has become the symbol of grassroots resistance against the Syrian regime, on a government-organized trip for journalists. Reporters leaving the city on a bus with government minders said Jacquier and his cameraman were walking up a street with pro-government protesters Wednesday when they came under fire.

His death comes as international journalists and Arab League monitors viewed the tumult rippling across restive cities in Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been trying to crush anti-government protests for months.

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Jacquier won an award from the International Committee of the Red Cross in June for a documentary on last year's revolt in Tunisia, which touched off the Arab Spring uprisings across the region. His photographer for that documentary, Christophe Kenck, was with him in Homs and suffered minor wounds in Wednesday's attack, France 2 said.

The journalists' watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said Jacquier also shared a 2003 French prize with a colleague for their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He covered the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and he was in Syria working for the France 2 program "Envoyé Spécial."

"Our thoughts are with his family and colleagues," Reporters Without Borders said. "We call on the authorities to shed all possible light on this tragic event with help from the Arab League's observers."

Syria's official news agency SANA said the country's Information Ministry expressed "deep regret and sorrow" over the deaths of Jacquier and eight "martyrs."

"The Ministry of Information stresses that the act is an extension of the terror chain Syria is exposed to, adding that it comes in the context of the terrorists' bid to distort the real image of what is happening in Syria," the agency said.

But in the aftermath, questions emerged about who would have attacked such a rally: resistance fighters vilified by the regime or pro-government forces trying to undermine the opposition.

Sofia Amara, a documentary filmmaker and a friend of Jacquier's family, said he "was very used to conflict zones" and "was not the kind of journalist to know fear."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe expressed his condolences and condemned the "heinous act."

"We are asking for an inquiry to be launched to shed all light on the circumstances of this tragedy," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"It is the responsibility of Syrian authorities to guarantee the security of the international journalists on the Syrian territory and to protect this fundamental liberty that is freedom of speech. Our ambassador in Damascus contacted the Syrian government to make sure that any necessary help is brought to the people that were with our fellow countryman. He is going immediately on the premises to ensure them the support of the embassy."

International journalists had previously been banned from reporting in Syria. The work was also dangerous for locals. Reporters Without Borders said a Syrian professional journalist and two Syrian citizen journalists had been killed since the start of the uprising.

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