From combined dispatches
DAMASCUS, Syria | U.S. military helicopters launched a rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as “serious aggression.”
A U.S. military official told the Associated Press the attack included a raid by special forces targeting a foreign-fighter network that travels through Syria into Iraq. The Americans have been unable to shut the network down in the area because Syria was out of the military’s reach.
“We are taking matters into our own hands,” the official told the AP on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of cross-border raids.
The attack came just days after the commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq said American troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an “uncontrolled” gateway for fighters entering Iraq.
A Syrian government statement said the helicopters attacked the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown and fired on workers inside, the statement said.
The government said civilians were among the dead, including four children.
A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and troops exited the aircraft and fired on a building. He said the aircraft flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories. The witness spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the charges d’affaires of the United States and Iraq to protest the strike.
“Syria condemns this aggression and holds the American forces responsible for this aggression and all its repercussions. Syria also calls on the Iraqi government to shoulder its responsibilities and launch an immediate investigation into this serious violation and prevent the use of Iraqi territory for aggression against Syria,” the government statement said.
Syrian state television also said U.S. soldiers stormed a building in the area during the raid.
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said he had no immediate information on the reported strike, but would check further. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment on reports of the attack, as did the CIA.
On Thursday, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelly said Iraq’s western borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were fairly tight as a result of good policing by security forces in those countries, but that Syria was a “different story.”
“The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side,” Gen. Kelly said. “We still have a certain level of foreign-fighter movement.”
He added that the U.S. was helping construct a sand berm and ditches along the border.
“There hasn’t been much, in the way of a physical barrier, along that border for years,” Gen. Kelly said.
The foreign-fighters network sends militants from North Africa, the Persian Gulf states and elsewhere in the Middle East to Syria, where elements of the Syrian military are in league with al Qaeda and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, the U.S. military official told the AP.