DAMASCUS - The opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime on Thursday of “liquidating” journalists in order to hush up what is happening in the country, a day after a French reporter was killed.

The SNC’s accusation came as France demanded an investigation into the death the previous day of Gilles Jacquier, 43, who worked for France 2 television, during a government-organised trip to the flashpoint city of Homs. The SNC denounced the “murder” of Jacquier, saying it was a “dangerous sign that the authorities have decided to physically liquidate journalists in an attempt to silence neutral and independent media.”

The award-winning Jacquier, who had covered conflicts in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, was the first Western reporter to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March last year. An AFP photographer said he was killed when a shell exploded among some 15 journalists covering demonstrations in Homs on a visit organised by the authorities.

Six Syrians were also reported killed, and several other people wounded. Anti-regime activists in Homs also said the authorities had orchestrated the attack, while state television blamed “a terrorist group” that had opened fire on the journalists and a gathering of regime supporters.

Wissam Tarif, an Arab campaigner with international activist non-governmental organisation Avaaz, undermined the government’s claims.

“The journalists were attacked in a heavily militarised regime stronghold. It would be hugely difficult for any armed opposition to penetrate the area and launch such a deadly attack,” he said.

Tarif also said the incident was an “unacceptable breach of the Arab League protocol,” to which Syria has committed itself and which requires journalists to have freedom to report across Syria.

“The regime has denied journalists free access to the country, forcing them to join press tours organised by the ministry of information and chaperoned closely by regime minders,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement that “France expects the Syrian authorities to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the attack, saying the “deaths highlight once again the terrible price being paid by the people of Homs, as well as the courage of journalists who take great personal risks to bring to light what is happening to the people of Syria.”

And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton joined global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders in demanding a rapid inquiry.

The SNC urged international organisations to deal with the “crimes perpetrated by the regime against Syrian and foreign journalists.”

Wednesday’s attack came hours after President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Damascus to address cheering crowds of supporters.

“Without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans,” Assad said during the rare public appearance in the capital’s Omayyad Square.

In a speech on Tuesday, he had vowed to crush “terrorism” with an iron fist, saying “regional and international parties” were trying to destabilise Syria.

That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing Syria towards civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting.

As the two sides remained polarised, demonstrations and killing continued.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed 13 people around the country on Thursday.

In December, the United Nations estimated that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown since March.

Earlier, the Observatory said 2,000 students were demonstrating in the Damascus province town of Irbin to demand an end to the regime and the “bringing to justice of the murderers of the Syrian people.”

And Syrians were being called to demonstrate on Friday in support of the Free Syrian Army, which consists of deserters from the regular army and claims to have 40,000 men based in Turkey.

In Moscow, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said “there is information that NATO members and some Arab states of the Persian Gulf, acting in line with the scenario seen in Libya, intend to turn the current interference with Syrian affairs into a direct military intervention.”

In this instance, he said in an interview published on the website of the daily Kommersant, “the main strike forces will be supplied not by France, Britain and Italy, but possibly by neighbouring Turkey.”

Washington and Ankara may already be working on plans for a no-fly zone to enable armed Syrian rebel units to build up, he said.

In other developments, Turkish police prevented a convoy of about 200 Syrian activists from crossing into their country to deliver humanitarian aid, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

Authorities demanded that a delegation from the activist group should have clearance from Syrian officials for the group to enter the country.