WASHINGTON (AFP) — US forces in Iraq staged a "successful" raid into Syria against foreign fighters, an American official said on Monday, as a furious Damascus accused Washington of "terrorist aggression."
Among those believed killed, the official said, was Abu Ghadiya, "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region."
"The operation was successful," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He is believed to have been killed."
It was the first confirmed US action of its kind into Syrian territory and signalled that Washington is moving to the kind of aggressive tactics against insurgent sanctuaries along Iraq's borders that it has been using with increasing intensity in Pakistan's tribal border areas.
"We consider this criminal and terrorist aggression," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told a news conference in London after talks with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
"Killing civilians in international law means a terrorist aggression," added Muallem, whose country's official media said eight civilians were killed, including children.
Asked if Syria would use force if the Americans mounted a similar operation again, he said: "As long as you are saying if, I tell you, if they do it again, we will defend our territories."
The Syrian minister said that four US helicopters had crossed the border on Sunday afternoon. Two landed at a village in northeast Syria while the other two aircraft protected them.
Soldiers emerged after the helicopters landed and started shooting at civilians working on farms, including a father and his three children and a fisherman, he said.
"All of them are civilians, Syrian, unarmed and they are on the Syrian territories," Muallem told reporters.
Official media in Damascus reported earlier that the helicopter-borne troops from Iraq launched an assault on a building site in Al-Sukkiraya village, which lies just eight kilometres (five miles) from the border on the Euphrates river and close to the Iraqi town of Al-Qaim, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda and other insurgents.
Hundreds of villagers took part on Monday in funerals for seven of those killed in the raid, chanting anti-American slogans.
Women in black wept as relatives carried the coffins in a funeral procession in the village of Hamdan, near Al-Sukkiraya.
A crowd of mourners chanted slogans mocking "American democracy" while others carried banners which read: "We will not go down on our knees before the Americans," and "Death to the criminal (US President George W.) Bush."
In Baghdad, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that the area targeted was "a theatre of insurgent activities against Iraq using Syria as a launch pad."
The US official in Washington, who declined to be identified, provided few details of the raid itself but did not dispute Syrian accounts of the raid.
"Look when you've got an opportunity, an important one, you take it," the official said. "That's what the American people would expect, particularly when it comes to foreign fighters going into Iraq, threatening our forces."
The raid came less than a week after the capture in Husaybah, Iraq of a weapons smuggler associated with Abu Ghadiya who the official said was targeted on Sunday.
The official press in Damascus blasted the attack as a "war crime" by Bush's administration.
Damascus summoned the official US and Iraqi representatives in protest, the state news agency SANA said.
The Arab League condemned the assault as a "violation which does nothing to help stability in the region and can only lead to new tensions," calling for those responsible to be held to account.
In neighbouring Lebanon, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said the raid "constitutes a violation of Syrian sovereignty and thus is a dangerous, unacceptable attack that we condemn."
Syrian state television broadcast pictures of the scene, showing a building site with bloodstains on the ground, and the bodies of victims in the local morgue.
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.
Foreign Minister Muallem rejected the claims.
"Syria did utmost effort to control the border. As anywhere in the world, you can't seal the border 100 percent ... You need a partner on the other side to control his side of the border," he said.
Major General John Kelly, the US commander in western Iraq, told reporters Thursday that Iraqi intelligence believes that "Al-Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side."
"And periodically, we know that they try to come across," he said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »