The United States has condemned a deadly attack by gunmen on a Syrian pro-government television station and said it hopes an upcoming meeting of world powers in Geneva will be a turning point in resolving Syria's 15-month conflict.
Militants attacked the headquarters of the al-Ikbariya satellite channel near Damascus with guns and bombs before dawn Wednesday, killing three journalists and four security guards. The station is privately-owned but strongly supports the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It resumed broadcasting shortly after the raid.
The Syrian government blamed the attack on "armed terrorists," a term it uses for rebels trying to end Mr. Assad's 11-year rule. But, Syrian rebel commanders denied responsibility and said a unit of the elite Republican Guard had defected and attacked the station.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Washington "condemns all acts of violence including those targeting pro-regime elements." He called on all parties in the conflict to "cease acts of hostility."
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting across Syria on Wednesday killed at least 80 people, more than half of them civilians. Activists have said the death toll in the conflict has jumped to around 100 people a day in the past week because of escalating attacks by heavily-armed security forces and lightly-armed rebels.
Carney said Syria's "dire" situation is a result of Mr. Assad trying to "cling on to power at all costs."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "great hope" that a meeting of world powers to be held in Geneva on Saturday will be a "turning point" in efforts to get international agreement on a plan "that will lead Syrians to a better future." She was speaking on a visit to Finland.
International peace envoy Kofi Annan called the high-level meeting, saying the "Syria Action Group" will attempt to agree on principles for a "Syrian-led political transition." He sent invitations to ministers of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well as to representatives of the Arab League and Turkey.
Two major regional players were not invited: Iran, a major ally of Mr. Assad, and Saudi Arabia, a prominent supporter of his enemies. The United States had objected to any Iranian participation in a meeting on Syria's future, saying Tehran could not play a constructive role while helping the Syrian president to crush his opponents.
Mr. Annan had wanted to include Iran in the Geneva meeting and gave no explanation for excluding it. But U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Mr. Annan will brief the Iranian government about the outcome of the talks because the envoy believes Tehran should be "part of the solution."
Russia, another longtime ally of the Assad government, also had called for Iran to be included in the Syria Action Group.
Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Khazaee reacted to the Geneva snub by saying "nobody can ignore ... the influence and constructive role that Iran has in the region." He also reiterated Iran's support for Mr. Annan's Syria peace plan that calls for an end to fighting and the start of a dialogue but has been ignored by Syria's warring sides.
In another development, U.N. investigators accused President Assad's forces of committing rights violations on "an alarming scale." In a report published Wednesday, the U.N. panel investigating human rights violations in Syria also said the situation is "dangerously and quickly deteriorating."
The panel's Brazilian chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said "gross human rights violations" - including torture and summary executions - have been committed regularly by both sides in the conflict.
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Faisal Khabbaz Hamoui, rejected the panel's accusations against his government and warned that Damascus will end its cooperation with international agencies.
Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.