DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A raid by U.S. forces inside Syria on Sunday is believed to have killed a major smuggler of foreign fighters into Iraq, a U.S. official said on Monday, as Syria condemned the attack as “terrorist aggression.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity about the raid, in which residents and Syrian officials said U.S. troops landed by helicopter and killed eight civilians.
A second U.S. official said U.S. forces had targeted only people they considered a threat and that women and children were alive at the site when they left.
The Pentagon and the White House have refused to officially confirm or deny U.S. involvement in the incident, which alarmed France and Russia. Both countries called on the United States to respect Syria’s territorial sovereignty.
If confirmed, it would be the first U.S. military strike inside Syria since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Syria says four helicopters attacked al-Sukkari farm in the Albou Kamal area in eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border, and that U.S. soldiers stormed a building there.
The first U.S. official said the raid targeted Abu Ghadiya, a former lieutenant of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
“It was a successful operation,” the U.S. official said by telephone. “He (Abu Ghadiya) is believed to be dead. This undoubtedly will have a debilitating effect on this foreign fighter smuggling network.”
The Bush administration, which will leave office in January after the U.S. presidential election on November 4, blames Damascus for not doing enough to stem the flow of al Qaeda fighters and other insurgents into Iraq.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on a visit to London it was not possible for Syria to patrol the entire length of its long border with Iraq.
He accused the United States of trying to derail recent diplomatic overtures between Europe and Syria.
“The Americans do it in the daylight. This means it is not a mistake, it is by blunt determination. For that we consider this criminal and terrorist aggression,” he told a news conference.
Reuters Television footage showed a small fenced farm and a truck riddled with bullet holes. Blood stained the ground.
Syrian state television showed a building site and a nearby tent with food and blankets and spent bullets laying around.
The official Syrian news agency SANA quoted a survivor, Souad al-Jasim, as saying U.S. soldiers fired on her and her children in the tent.
“Then they opened fire on the workers on site,” she said.
Jasim’s husband was killed in the attack and one of her children wounded. Thousands of people attended a funeral held for those killed in the raid, SANA said.
The second U.S. official said U.S. military forces acted in support of “another agency” in conducting the operation. The official declined to elaborate but that description could suggest the involvement of the CIA.
He described Abu Ghadiya was a “bad dude” who ran one of the most prolific networks bringing foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq.
Moualem said Syria would ask the United States and Iraq for an investigation into the raid, which the Iraqi government said targeted insurgents responsible for attacks inside Iraq.
“We put the responsibility on the American government and the need to investigate and return back to us with the result and explanation why they did it,” Moualem said.
Asked whether the Syrians would use force if the Americans conducted a similar raid in future, Moualem said: “As long as you are saying if, I will tell you if they do it again ... we will defend our territories.”
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the attack was launched against “terrorist groups operating from Syria against Iraq,” including one which had killed 13 police recruits in a border village.
“Iraq had asked Syria to hand over this group, which uses Syria as a base for its terrorist activities,” Dabbagh said.
Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed said last week his country “refuses to be a launching pad for threats against Iraq.”
Russia, whose invasion of Georgia in August drew strong criticism from the United States, accused Washington of fueling tensions in the Middle East and said it viewed the raid with “great concern”.
“It is obvious that such unilateral military actions have a sharply negative effect on the situation in the region,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Paris said it deplored the loss of civilian life.
“France calls for restraint and underlines its attachment to the strict respect of the territorial integrity of states,” President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Adrian Croft, Mariam Karouny, Will Rasmussen, Christian Lowe, Randall Mikkelsen, Andrew Gray and Tabassum Zakaria; Writing by Dominic Evans, Yara Bayoumy and Ross Colvin; Editing by John O'Callaghan