3 journalists killed by U.S. fire in Iraq

U.S. military is accused of targeting news media

Hotel, Al-Jazeera office hit

American forces say they were under attack

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At least three foreign journalists were killed and several others wounded by two American strikes in Baghdad yesterday. While U.S. officials said soldiers were returning enemy fire in each case, the deaths sparked bitter accusations that the United States was targeting the news media.

Taras Protsyuk, 35, a Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters news service, and Jose Couso, 37, a cameraman for the Spanish television network Telecinco, died after a U.S. tank fired a shell that struck Reuters' room on the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel. Most of Baghdad's international press corps is lodged in the hotel. Reporters on the scene rejected U.S. claims that American forces had been attacked from the site.

In a separate incident, Al-Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayoub, a Jordanian in his 30s, was killed when missiles hurtled into the network's offices in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karak, according to the Qatar-based broadcaster. Shortly after, another attack hit the nearby office of Abu Dhabi Television, after a half-dozen Al-Jazeera staff members sought refuge there.

U.S. military officials justified both episodes, saying that commanders on the scene were responding to "significant enemy fire." Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the deaths were "terribly unfortunate" but proved that the military leaders of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are willing to endanger innocent lives.

"We don't target journalists," Whitman said. "We don't target civilians, period."

But the incidents drew denunciations from Arab news media executives.

"It leads me to conclude that the attack was deliberate," said Mohamed Dourrachad, news director for Abu Dhabi Television, speaking from the United Arab Emirates. "That's our conclusion here."

He said the 20 employees in the network's office heard no sounds of shooting nearby until an American tank fired a shot above it and then a second that hit the offices. The network's signal was knocked off the air and its reporters are no longer able to function as journalists, he said. As Dourrachad spoke yesterday evening, he said the Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Jazeera staff members were trapped in the Abu Dhabi Television bureau's basement as crossfire raged between Iraqi fighters and U.S. troops.

In a broadcast about the attacks, Al-Jazeera described Ayoub as a "martyr for duty."

Reuters Editor in Chief Geert Linnebank called the deaths "so unnecessary."

"Clearly, the war and all its confusion have come to the heart of Baghdad," Linnebank told his news organization. "But the incident nonetheless raises questions about the judgment of the advancing U.S. troops who have known all along that this hotel is the main base for almost all foreign journalists in Baghdad."

The death toll for journalists covering the war in Iraq has risen to at least 12, according to Joel Simon, acting director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 10 of whom died during hostilities.

The Defense Department constructed an elaborate plan that has integrated more than 600 journalists into combat units with the U.S.-led forces. Participating journalists include those representing Abu Dhabi, Al-Jazeera and other Arab-language outlets.

But the Pentagon has questioned the activities of reporters who are not "embedded" with allied units and raised doubts about their safety. Several "unilateral" reporters - those acting outside the military program - have been among the journalists who have died in Iraq. Journalists at some Arab-language publications and broadcasters have questioned whether the recent strikes were efforts to silence outlets that might report on the civilian toll of the U.S.-led campaign to oust Hussein. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf frequently holds impromptu news conferences nearby.

Several journalists groups filed letters of protest with the Defense Department yesterday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the military forces had violated the Geneva Conventions' codes requiring "proportionality" in responding to attacks.

"Firing a tank round at a hotel full of journalists is a disproportionate response to small-arms rounds," Simon said.

Reporters without Borders went further, accusing the U.S. troops of a deliberate assault on the news media.

"This evidence does not match the U.S. version of an attack in self-defense, and we can only conclude that the U.S. Army deliberately and without warning targeted journalists," the group's secretary general, Robert Menard, said in a written statement. He demanded proof that Americans had been fired upon.

National Public Radio correspondent Anne Garrels had been staying at the Palestine Hotel. She was one of several reporters there who said she had not heard or seen any evidence of the hostile fire reported by the U.S. military.

"I understand American soldiers have said snipers were firing from or around this hotel and that men were on the roof with binoculars surveying the American position," she said yesterday on National Public Radio. "I can only say I've seen no snipers in my hotel, and I've heard no outgoing shooting from this hotel, and, yes indeed, there were reporters using binoculars on the roof."

But U.S. military officials said they had cautioned journalists against reporting from Baghdad.

"When [U.S. forces] are fired at, they have not only the right to respond, they have the obligation to respond to protect the soldiers with them and to accomplish the mission at large," said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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