DAMASCUS: World powers are demanding journalists in Syria be protected following the death of a French reporter in a rocket attack hours after President Bashar Al-Assad vowed to defeat a "conspiracy" against his regime.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Syrian and foreign activists were making a bid on Thursday to cross into Syria from Turkey and Jordan to take humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
"Our aim is … to deliver humanitarian aid to the families in the afflicted areas that suffer from daily brutal bombing and totally unacceptable living conditions," the "Freedom Convoy" said in a statement on its website.
And Human Rights Watch accused Assad’s troops of "making a mockery" of Arab League observers, whose mission to monitor Syria’s implementation of a peace deal has come under criticism for being ineffective.
France demanded an investigation into the death Gilles Jacquier, 43, who worked for France 2 television, while the US accused Syria of failing to provide an environment hospitable to the media.
Jacquier is the first Western reporter to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in March.
An AFP photographer said he died when a shell exploded on Wednesday amid a group of some 15 journalists covering demonstrations on a visit organised by the authorities.
Six Syrians were also reported killed.
Several more people were said to have been hurt, including a Belgian journalist hit in the eye and a Dutch photographer who has since been released from hospital.
"Pro-Assad activists were also hit. When I went down, I saw Gilles lying in a pool of blood. An ambulance drove up and I jumped in. At the hospital, it was chaos and total hysteria, with more wounded arriving every five minutes," said the AFP photographer.
Homs activists blamed the authorities for the incident. The Observatory did not lay any blame.
"France expects the Syrian authorities to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the attack while EU foreign affairs Chief Catherine Ashton joined global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in demanding a rapid inquiry.
Assad vowed on Wednesday to defeat a "conspiracy" against Syria, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton branded as "chillingly cynical" a rare speech he delivered the day before.
Assad, speaking to tens of thousands during a public appearance in the capital’s Omayyad Square, said that "without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans."
"Whoever wants to talk should come down into the street," said Assad, as he thanked his backers, many holding his portrait or waving Syrian flags, for "supporting the institutions of the state and the army".
The United Nations estimated last month that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown since March, many gunned down during peaceful street protests.
Damascus accuses "armed terrorist gangs" of fomenting the bloodshed.
In his nearly two-hour televised speech on Tuesday, Assad vowed to crush "terrorism" with an iron fist.
"Regional and international parties who are trying to destabilize Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events," said the embattled leader.
That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing Syria towards civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting in the protests against his regime.
Clinton said "what we hear from President Assad in his chillingly, cynical speech (on Tuesday) was only making excuses blaming foreign countries," she said.
In related developments, the State Department announced it would reduce the number of staff at its embassy in Damascus amid fears for their safety over the crackdown. As a result, the embassy’s consular section will only receive visitors who have made an appointment.
Critics say the Arab observers mission has been completely outmaneuvered by Damascus, with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood accusing it of covering up "crimes of the Syrian regime".
Referring to one incident, New York-based Human Rights Watch said two protesters were shot and wounded as they tried to meet observers in Jisr Al-Shughur. It quoted witnesses as saying observers were in a nearby square, but left in a car after the shooting began.
"Such incidents, and the ever rising death toll, clearly demonstrate that the presence of Arab League observers has done little to compel the Syrian authorities to stop their crimes," said Anna Neistat, HRW’s associate emergencies director.
"As President Assad derides the Arab League in his speeches, his troops are making a mockery of its observers’ mission on the ground."