By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen attacked a pro-government TV station Wednesday near the Syrian capital, killing seven employees in the latest barrage of violence as world powers prepared for a high-level meeting that the U.S. hopes will be a turning point in the crisis.
Invitations to Saturday's gathering in Geneva were sent by special envoy Kofi Annan to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — including Syrian allies Russia and China — but not to major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The absence of those two countries, as well as the lack of any appetite for international military intervention, could make it difficult for the group to find the leverage to end the bloodshed in Syria. An effort by Annan to broker a peace plan failed earlier this year.
Diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia — Syria's most important ally and protector — agreeing on a transition plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. But Moscow has rejected efforts by outside forces to end the conflict or any plan to force regime change in Damascus.
The United Nations said Wednesday that the conflict, which began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring that swept aside entrenched leaders across the region, is descending into sectarian warfare.
President Bashar Assad has so far appeared largely impervious to world pressure and he has warned the international community from meddling in the crisis, which has seen a sharp escalation in violence in recent months. He said this week that his country is in "a genuine state of war," an increasingly common refrain from the Syrian leader.
Assad denies there is any popular will behind the uprising, which is in its 16th month, saying terrorists are driving a foreign conspiracy to destroy the country. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the violence.
An Associated Press photographer said the attack on the Al-Ikhbariya TV station in the town of Drousha, about 20 kilometers (14 miles) south of the capital Damascus, left bloodstains on the ground and bullet holes in the walls. The attack heavily damaged five portable buildings used for offices and studios.
Al-Ikhbariya is privately owned but strongly supports the regime.
"What happened today is a massacre," Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told reporters. He blamed terrorists — the same term the government uses for rebels.
The rebels deny they target the media. Activists blamed the attack on elite Syrian troops who defected from the regime Tuesday. The allegation could not be independently confirmed.
Several other staff members of the TV station were wounded in the attack, which happened just before 4 a.m., an employee said. He added that the gunmen kidnapped him along with several station guards. He was released but the guards were not.
The employee, who did not give his name for fear of retribution, said the gunmen drove him about 200 meters (yards) away and he then heard an explosion from the station.
"I was terrified when they blindfolded me and took me away," the man said by telephone.
Hours after the attack, the station was still on the air, broadcasting news of a rally in a Damascus square by people protesting the raid.
Earlier this month, two Al-Ikhbariya employees were shot and seriously wounded by gunmen in the northwestern town of Haffa while covering clashes between government troops and insurgents.
Much of the violence that has gripped Syria in the uprising has been sanctioned by the government to crush dissent. But rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaida or other extremists are joining the fray.
On Wednesday, the U.N. gave a grim assessment of the crisis, saying the violence has worsened since April, when the cease-fire brokered by Annan was supposed to go into effect. There also were signs the bloodshed is descending into sectarian warfare.