US troops 'kill eight' in raid inside Syria

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The Independent Online

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

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

"We are taking matters into our own hands," the official told The Associated Press in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of cross-border raids.

The attack came just days after the commander of US forces in western Iraq said American 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 helicopters attacked the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, eight kilometers (five miles) inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown and fired on workers inside, the statement said.

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

A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and troops exited the aircraft and fired on a building. He said the aircraft flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

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

"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 government statement said.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there have been some instances in which American troops crossed areas of the 600-kilometer (370-mile) border in pursuit of militants, or warplanes violating Syria's airspace. But Sunday's raid was the first conducted by aircraft and on such a large scale. In May 2005, Syria said American fire killed a border guard.

Syrian state television late Sunday aired footage that showed blood stains on the floor of a site under construction, the wooden beams used to mold concrete strewn on the ground. Akram Hameed, one of the injured who said he was fishing in the Euphrates, told Syrian television he saw four helicopters coming from the border area under a heavy blanket of fire.

"One of the helicopters landed in an agricultural area and eight members disembarked," the man in his 40s said. "The firing lasted about 15 minutes and when I tried to leave the area on my motorcycle, I was hit by a bullet in the right arm about 20 meters (yards) away," he said.

The injured wife of the building's guard, in bed in hospital with a tube in her nose, told Syria TV that two helicopters landed and two remained in the air during the attack. The TV did not identify her by name.

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

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

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