U.S. confirms strike on Syria that killed eight

A U.S. military official confirmed late Sunday an American helicopter attack in an area along Syria’s border with Iraq, which left 8 people dead and three people wounded.

Syria condemned the attack, which it called “serious aggression.”

The raid indicated the desert frontier between the two countries remains a key battleground, more than five years into the Iraq war. The U.S. official said the attack targeted elements of a robust foreign fighter logistics network and that due to Syrian inaction the U.S. was now “taking matters into our own hands.”

A government statement carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency said the attack occurred at the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles (eight kilometers) inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction, firing at the workers inside shortly before sundown, the statement said.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the charges d’affaires of the United States and Iraq to protest the strike.

A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the aircraft flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories.

Some of the helicopters landed and troops exiting the aircraft fired on a building, he said, adding that at least one of the dead was a construction worker.

Iraqi travelers making their way home across the border reported hearing many explosions, said Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of the Iraqi border town of Qaim.

The Syrian government said there were civilians among the dead, including four children.

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

Qaim, across the border in Iraq, had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.

Iraqi insurgents seized Qaim in April 2005, forcing U.S. Marines to recapture the town the following month in heavy fighting. The area became more secure only after Sunni tribes in western Iraq turned against al-Qaida in late 2006 and joined forces with the Americans.

On Thursday, the commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq said in a briefing with Pentagon reporters that American troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, from where some fighters were continuing to enter Iraq.

Maj. Gen. John Kelly said in last week’s briefing 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 that Syria was a different story.

“The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side,” Kelly said. “We still have a certain level of foreign fighter movement.”

“There hasn’t been much, in the way of a physical barrier, along that border for years,” Kelly said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem accused the United States 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.

Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, in recent months, Damascus has been trying to change its image and end years of global seclusion.

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

European, American and Arab officials also have increased their visits to the country after years of avoiding it. Most recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined the leaders of Turkey and Qatar in a summit with Assad in Damascus.

By Yoav Stern and News Agencies
Last update¬†–¬†00:31 27/10/2008

Source: HAARETZ

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