DAMASCUS - The Associated Press
A fire burns at the site of an attack on the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya satellite television channel's offices outside Damascus, which killed three staff on June 27, 2012 after President Bashar al-Assad said Syria was in a "state of war." AFP PHOTO/STR
Gunmen raided the headquarters of a pro-government Syrian TV station early Wednesday, killing seven employees, kidnapping others and demolishing buildings, officials said. They denounced what they called a "massacre against the freedom of the press" and held it up as an example of rebel atrocities.
Al-Ikhbariya is privately-owned but strongly supports President Bashar Assad’s regime. Pro-government journalists have been attacked on several previous occasions during the country’s 15-month uprising, although such incidents are comparatively rare.
Rebels deny they target the media. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group confirmed the raid and the deaths of several employees, but had no other information.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told reporters that gunmen stormed the station compound in the town of Drousha, about 20 kilometers (14 miles) south of the capital Damascus, placed explosives and then detonated them. He said the attackers killed seven people and kidnapped others.
"What happened today is a massacre, a massacre against the freedom of the press," al-Zoebi said in comments broadcast on state-run Syrian TV. "They carried out a terrifying massacre by executing the employees."
An Associated Press photographer who visited the compound said five portable buildings used for offices and studios had collapsed, with blood on the floor and wooden partitions still on fire. Some walls had bullet holes, he said.
An employee at the station said several other staffers were wounded in the attack, which happened just before 4 a.m. local time. He said the gunmen kidnapped him along with several station guards. He was released but the guards were not.
The employee, who did not give his name for fear of repercussions, said the gunmen drove him about 200 meters (yards) away, and then he heard the explosion of the station being demolished. "I was terrified when they blindfolded me and took me away," the man said by telephone.
Earlier this month, two Ikhbariya employees were shot and seriously wounded by gunmen in the northwestern town of Haffa while covering clashes between government troops and insurgents.
Hours after the attack, the station was still on the air, broadcasting a rally in Damascus’ main square against the station raid.
Also Wednesday, Burhan Ghalioun, the former leader of Syria’s main opposition group, said he briefly entered rebel-held areas in the north of the country in a rare trip by the exiled political opposition to the interior of the country. Ghalioun told Al-Jazeera TV that the areas he visited in Idlib province are ruling themselves, without any regime presence.
Ghalioun, former head of the Iraqi National Council, did not say when he entered or left Syria.
"I went to see the war that the Syrian regime is staging," Ghalioun said. "The regime continues to shell and kill." Ghalioun said he spoke with wounded Syrians including some who lost limbs and others who were paralyzed.
He added that he was able to drive about freely and that "part of the country is liberated."
Activists reported violence throughout Syria on Wednesday. The Observatory said at least 10 government soldiers were killed in an ambush in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.
The group said that rebels were able to shoot down on Tuesday a helicopter gunship in Idlib province. Amateur videos showed what looked like a helicopter burning in a field but the report could not be independently confirmed.
Activists reported other clashes, mostly in Idlib and nearby Aleppo province as well as rebel-held areas in the central city of Homs that have been under government attack for nearly three weeks.