DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria protested vehemently on Monday over what it said was a US attack on a border village that left eight civilians dead, with the official press branding it a “war crime.”
“The American forces from Iraq committed cold-blooded murder,” the government newspaper Tishrin wrote. “They committed a war crime in killing eight Syrian civilians in a quiet village.”
Official media reported that American helicopter-borne troops from Iraq launched an assault on a building site Sunday in the village of Al-Sukkiraya, which lies just eight kilometres (five miles) from the border.
The US military in Iraq said in a statement it does not have “any information” on the incident, which if confirmed would be the first of its kind into Syrian territory.
Damascus has summoned the official US and Iraqi representatives in protest, the official SANA news agency said, describing the dead as a father and his four children, a couple and another man.
Syrian state television broadcast pictures of the scene, showing a building site with bloodstains on the ground, and the bodies of victims lying in the morgue.
“Four American helicopters violated Syrian airspace around 1645 (1445 GMT) on Sunday. American soldiers attacked a civilian building under construction and fired at workmen inside, causing eight deaths,” official media said.
“Syria condemns and denounces this act of aggression and US forces will bear the responsibility for any consequences,” SANA quoted an unidentified official as saying.
“Syria also demands that the Iraqi government accept its responsibilities and launches an immediate inquiry following this dangerous violation and forbids the use of Iraqi territory to launch attacks on Syria.”
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem is due in London for a visit on Monday.
“This American aggression illustrates the stupidity of the administration of (US President George W.) Bush,” Tishrin said. “The Bush administration must acknowledge the war crimes it has committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.”
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman Commander Darryn James said there was “no response” from the US Department of Defence.
The Iraqi defence ministry has also refused to comment.
US commanders say Syria is the main transit point for foreign jihadists crossing into Iraq and have blamed Damascus for turning a blind eye to the problem but Iraqi officials have said Syria has been boosting border security.
Al-Sukkiraya is on the Euphrates river across the border from the Iraqi town of Al-Qaim, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda and other insurgents. US commanders have regularly said the area around Qaim is a transit point for foreign fighters.
“I heard shooting, I ran to get my son and they shot me,” one woman lying in a hospital bed told Syrian state television in footage aired on Monday.
“I was fishing and I saw four helicopters. They started shooting like the rain,” said another man, his arm in a bandage. “I saw eight soldiers coming out (of a helicopter) with weapons… I tried to flee and I was hit.”
Last month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Bush that Iran and Syria — long targets of US blame over the deadly unrest in the country — no longer pose a problem.
However, on October 16 Iraqi forces arrested seven Syrian “terrorist” suspects at a checkpoint near the city of Baquba, a hub of Al-Qaeda fighters, the Iraqi defence ministry said.
Syria’s first ambassador to Iraq in 26 years took up his post in Baghdad this month, marking the official end of more than two decades of icy relations.
On September 28, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed she had met her Syrian counterpart to discuss Middle East peace efforts despite renewed criticism from Washington over Syrian policies.
Their talks came after Bush slammed Damascus in an addresss to the UN General Assembly, saying regimes like Syria and Iran “continue to sponsor terror.”
Washington has also accused Damascus of failing to give adequate cooperation to the International Atomic Energy Agency in its investigation into a mystery facility bombed by Israel in September last year that US officials have charged was a nuclear plant.