SYRIANS FIGHT OFF ATTACK ON U.S. EMBASSY
By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer
September 12, 2006
- Armed Islamic militants attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in a brazen attack Tuesday, the government said. Four people
were killed, including three of the assailants. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but an al-Qaida offshoot group
was suspected, Syria's ambassador to the United States said.
No Americans were hurt in
the attack, in which the militants used automatic rifles, hand grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives.
The al-Qaida offshoot group,
called Jund al-Sham, has been blamed for several attacks in Syria in recent years, the Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha,
said in comments to CNN.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Syrian security agents for repelling the attack, but added it was too early to
know who may have been behind it.
"I think it's very early
to try and speculate why this may have happened," said Rice, speaking at a news conference in Nova Scotia Tuesday with her Canadian counterpart, Peter MacKay.
The attackers apparently
did not breach the high walls surrounding the embassy's white compound in the city's diplomatic neighborhood.
One of Syria's anti-terrorism forces was killed and 11 other people
were wounded, the official news agency reported. The wounded including a police officer, two Iraqis and seven people employed
at nearby technical workshop.
A Chinese diplomat also
was hit in the face by shrapnel and slightly injured while standing on top of a garage at the Chinese Embassy, China's Foreign Ministry said. The diplomat, political counselor
Li Hongyu, was in stable condition at a hospital, the ministry said.
A witness said a Syrian
guard outside the U.S. Embassy also was killed, but the government did not immediately confirm that. As at most American embassies
worldwide, a local guard force patrols outside the compound's walls while U.S. Marines are mostly responsible for guarding
classified documents and fighting off attackers inside the compound.
Witnesses also said the
gunmen tried to throw hand grenades into the embassy compound, shouting "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!" It was not clear
if any of the grenades made it over the walls, which are about 8 feet high.
The attack came at a time
of high tension between the United States and Syria
over the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war in neighboring Lebanon.
In Damascus, the sentiment has become increasingly anti-American.
Syria has seen previous attacks by Islamic militants. In June, Syrian anti-terrorism police fought Islamic militants near
the Defense Ministry in a gunbattle that killed five people and wounded four. In 2004, four people were killed in a clash
between police and a team of suspected bombers targeting the Canadian Embassy.
The Bush administration
has been critical of the tight control that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has over its people. Rice, meeting
with her Canadian counterpart in Nova Scotia, would not
speculate on whether Tuesday's attack may be an indication that the regime's control is slipping.
White House press secretary
Tony Snow also expressed gratitude to Syria.
"Syrian officials came to
aid of the Americans," Snow said. "The U.S. government is grateful for
the assistance the Syrians provided in going after the attackers, and once again, that illustrates the importance of Syria being an important ally in the war on terror.
"It does not mean they are
an ally. We are hoping they will become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists," he said, adding that
the Bush administration does not know who is responsible for the attack.
Washington recalled Ambassador Margaret Scobey after the assassination
of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, amid suspicions that Damascus
had a role in it. She has not returned since, effectively downgrading U.S.
diplomatic representation to the level of charge d'affaires.
Pools of blood lay on the
sidewalk outside the U.S. Embassy, near a burned car apparently used by the attackers. A sport utility vehicle with U.S. diplomatic tags had a bullet hole in its windshield,
and the windows of nearby guard houses also were shattered.
There were conflicting reports
of what happened.
Syrian TV said one car was
rigged with explosives but never was detonated by the attackers. But one witness said a second car did explode, and TV video
showed a burned car.
The Interior Ministry, which
is in charge of police, said a fourth attacker now in detention was wounded in what it called a "terrorist attack." The report,
carried on state-run television, said anti-terror units brought "the situation under control" and an investigation was under
In Washington, a State Department spokesman confirmed the attack by "unknown assailants" but
had few details. "Local authorities have responded and are on the scene," said spokesman Kurtis Cooper said.
A U.S. Embassy statement
said the embassy came under armed attack at 10:10 a.m. and that all embassy personnel were safe. One Syrian guard was injured
by gunfire and was hospitalized in a stable condition, the statement said.
The embassy's charge d'affaires,
Michael Corbin, met with Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Maguid at the scene, and spoke by phone with assistant minister of
foreign affairs, Ahmed Arnous, according to the statement.
It said the Syrian government
has pledged full security cooperation.
About 30 Syrian guards usually
are posted around the embassy 24 hours a day, Moustapha said.
State television said four
armed attackers "attempted to storm" the embassy, using automatic rifles and hand grenades. Syrian security guards attacked
the gunmen, killing three and wounding a fourth, TV said.
The attackers came in two
cars and parked one that was rigged with explosives in front of the embassy but did not blow it up, state-run TV reported.
Explosives experts dismantled the bomb, it said.
But a witness told The Associated
Press that two gunmen drove up in front of the embassy, got out of their car, shot at the Syrian sentries at the building's
entrance, and then detonated explosives in the car.
The witness, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the security personnel fired back, and security forces
rushed to the scene.
Television showed a delivery
van loaded with pipe bombs strapped to large propane gas canisters outside the embassy. Had the bombs detonated, the explosions
could have caused massive damage.
The video also showed the
charred remains of a smaller car parked several feet behind the van.
Up to 40 U.S. diplomats are posted at the embassy, which is "average"
in size, according to Tom Case, a deputy spokesman at the State Department.