Published October 29, 2008
The U.S. is disputing Syria's claims that innocent civilians were killed in a raid over the weekend, saying that only those associated with the intended target perished in the attack.
U.S. officials told FOX News that those killed in the Special Operations strike on Sunday were those that were "clearly connected" to Abu Ghadiya, a senior coordinator for Al Qaeda who was suspected of funneling foreign fighters, weapons and cash into Iraq.
A U.S. official confirmed that Ghadiya himself was also killed in the strike.
A senior U.S. military intelligence official said that in July only about 20 foreign fighters were entering the country each month, down 50 percent from six months earlier, and just a fifth of the estimated 100 foreign fighters who were infiltrating Iraq a year ago.
Eight people in total were killed in the raid, which Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem called an act of "criminal and terrorist aggression."
During their funerals, angry residents shouted anti-American slogans and carried banners reading: "Down with Bush and the American enemy."
The Syrian government said four U.S. military helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown in Sukkariyeh — a village about five miles inside the Syrian border.
The attack was another sign that the United States is aggressively launching military raids across the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq to destroy insurgent sanctuaries. In Pakistan, U.S. missile strikes have killed at least two senior Al Qaeda operatives this year and ramped up the threat to groups suspected of plotting attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan and terror strikes in the West.
A Sukkariyeh resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life, said he saw at least two men taken into custody by American forces and whisked away by helicopter.
Iran condemned the attack as did Russia, which has had close ties with Syria since Soviet times.
Sunday's attack came at a time when Syria appears to be making some amends with the United States. Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, Damascus has been trying in recent months to change its image and end years of global seclusion.
In Sukkariyeh, villager Jumaa Ahmad al-Hamad told the AP he was walking Sunday when he saw four helicopters, two of which landed.
"Shooting then started ringing for more than 10 minutes," al-Hamad said Monday. After the helicopters stopped firing and left the area, he and other villagers went to the site and discovered the bodies of his uncle, Dawoud al-Hamad, and four of his uncle's sons, who he said were killed.
At the one-story family house of the deceased Dawoud al-Hamad and his sons, about 30 women dressed in black wept in a courtyard. They all dismissed allegations that the dead men had links to Al Qaeda.
"They were innocent laborers who worked from dusk to dawn," said Abdullah's wife, Rima, while sitting on the floor. She said work at the construction site started last week.
Asked about U.S. reports that an Al Qaeda-linked group used the site, Siham, the widow of one of Dawoud al-Hamad's sons, Ibrahim, said: "I don't know about any of that."
"All I know is that they went to work and never came back," said the mother of seven children, the youngest of whom is an 8-month-old girl.
The area targeted Sunday is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.
FOX News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.