BEIRUT -- Gunmen stormed a pro-government television station outside the Syrian capital on Wednesday, burning down the offices and killing three journalists and four security guards, Syria’s official state media reported.
The brazen attack on the station, which had reportedly been placed on the European Union sanctions blacklist, came as accounts of fighting escalated in the restive suburbs surrounding the capital and a dour Syrian President Bashar Assad declared the nation was on a war footing.
Damascus, the capital, has long been insulated from much of the violence raging across the country. But security has reportedly been tightened around the city as the sounds of shellfire and the sight of troop movements are said to becoming more apparent to residents.
A new United Nations report, meanwhile, concluded that the situation in Syria had “deteriorated rapidly,” with killings by both sides in the conflict increasingly taking on a sectarian character.
In an apparent bid to salvage his moribund peace plan, U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan said Wednesday he was convening a meeting in Geneva on Saturday of an “action group” of nations dedicated to a “Syrian-led political transition.”
Among the invitees were the five permanent Security Council members — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — along with Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.
The official announcement pointedly did not include Iran among the nations invited. Washington has balked at the inclusion of Tehran, a close ally of Assad.
The official Syrian news service said attackers bombed the pro-government Ikhbariya TV and executed journalists “in cold blood,” labeling the attack “a massacre against journalism and the freedom of media.”
Syrian television broadcast footage of the still-smoldering TV station wreckage, including charred control panels, the battered metal frames of a burned-out building and the blasted, debris-strewn interior of what had apparently been the broadcast studio.
The new U.N. report detailed abuses — including extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture — being committed by both sides in the escalating conflict. The report also found that killings were taking place “on what appeared to be mainly sectarian grounds,” a disturbing trend in the religiously and ethnically mixed nation.
While victims were once selected on the basis of being pro- or anti-government, the report cited “a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation.”
The report said that “gross violations of human rights are occurring in the context of increasingly militarized fighting.”
Armed rebels have been fighting to oust Assad, who swore in a new government on Tuesday and delivered a dire message to Syrians.
“We live in a state of real war,” Assad said while presiding over the first session of the new government, the state-run news service reported. “And when we live in a state of war, all our policies, directives and all sectors will be directed in order to gain victory in this war.”
It was the second time this month that a stern Assad had informed Syrians in a public address that their nation was in a state of war, apparently preparing people for more violence in a conflict that has already cost at least 10,000 lives since it began in March 2011.
On Tuesday, a White House spokesman cited increasing military defections, fighting closer to Damascus and Syria's downing of a Turkish jet last week as evidence that Assad's government is losing control.
“Clearly Bashar al-Assad’s regime has slowly been losing its grip on its country,” spokesman Jay Carney told journalists aboard Air Force One.
The United States and its allies, including Turkey and many Arab and western states, have called on Assad to step down. The Syrian president has said he has no plans to leave office.
--Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch
Photo: A picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows a man walking amid the rubble and smoke at the site of an attack on the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya television channel's offices outside Damascus on Wednesday. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency.