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An Illusion of Safety Shattered

Two cameramen die when Palestine Hotel comes under U.S. fire. An Al Jazeera reporter is fatally wounded at the TV outlet's office.

April 09, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The slender illusion of safety for journalists in the Iraqi capital was shattered Tuesday as a reporter and two cameramen were killed -- all by American fire.

There have been a range of fears for journalists here since the beginning of the war, from U.S. bombs to the wrath of hard-core Iraqi loyalists to the chaos that could erupt in the event of a power vacuum. But the Palestine Hotel, on the east bank of the Tigris River, had been seen by journalists as a sanctuary.

And because of that, the erratic elevators and the absence of hot water and electricity in the rooms -- not to mention the occasional cockroach -- were endured as nuisances in covering the Iraqi side of the war. With its seedy demeanor, it was much like the old Commodore Hotel in Beirut, where journalists flocked in the 1970s and '80s because they believed they would be safe there even in the face of civil war and Israeli attacks on the Lebanese capital.

Journalists working in wartime often concoct rationales to persuade themselves they'll be safe. They make rules such as not going out after dark and always wearing a flak jacket. And they tell themselves the odds are against being hurt, especially if they are in a hotel filled with other reporters.

But Tuesday, an American tank fired a round into the Palestine Hotel, killing a Ukrainian cameraman and a Spanish cameraman, only hours after another U.S. munition claimed the life of a correspondent of the Arab news station Al Jazeera.

The dead were identified as Taras Protsyuk, 35, a Ukrainian cameraman for the Reuters news agency; Jose Couso, 37, a cameraman for Spanish television network Telecinco; and Tariq Ayyoub, a correspondent for Al Jazeera.

Photographer Jerome Delay of Associated Press was on the 17th floor of the Palestine, taking pictures of a U.S. tank on a nearby bridge crossing the Tigris. The tank was being fired on, and its gunner believed that men atop the tall buildings across the river -- including the hotel -- were acting as spotters. The tank commander gave the order to fire.

To Delay's disbelief, he saw the tank turn its turret toward the hotel and fire. The building shook and Delay raced down the stairs to find that a room occupied by Reuters had been hit.

"People were screaming and crying, out of control," he said. "The window was shattered."

Among the wounded, Delay found his longtime friend Protsyuk.

"Taras was lying on the floor on his back, unconscious," Delay said. "His jaws were locked. We forced open his jaws to get some air into him and got him breathing again." Delay also saw that his friend had a severe abdominal wound.

He and others put Protsyuk on a blanket to rush him to a hospital. The hotel elevator stopped at every floor on the way down.

Instead of going to a major hospital, their hired driver took them to a small clinic that was unable to handle the serious wounds. It took five more minutes to get to Olympic Hospital in downtown Baghdad. Protsyuk was still alive.

"He was not conscious, but responding. The vital signs were still here. He was groaning," Delay said. "When I got him on the table in the emergency room, the doctor said, 'He is dead.' "

Later, Delay agonized that his efforts to save Protsyuk had been unsuccessful. "I can't explain to you what it is to have someone you know just die in your hands," he said. "It is such a feeling of failure."

Ayyoub, of Al Jazeera, was the first Arab journalist to die in the war. He was killed when two U.S. missiles hit the network's office in central Baghdad several hours before the Palestine Hotel was fired on.

This is not the first time the station's offices have been touched by American firepower: They also were hit in Kabul in the Afghan war and more recently in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Besides being on the Arab television channel, Ayyoub was well known in Jordan, where he was a staff reporter for the English-language Jordan Times. He also wrote for the Agence France-Presse news service as well as working occasionally as an assistant for foreign media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times.

Other Al Jazeera correspondents and anchors could hardly contain their emotions on camera after learning of Ayyoub's death. Mohamed Krishan, introducing a short report about Ayyoub's life, tried to hold back tears but finally broke down. The channel quickly cut to the film about Ayyoub. The report, shown over the course of the day, opened with the lines, "The planes that call for democracy and human rights and freedom of the press have killed this man."

"He was one of my stars," said Jennifer Harmarneh, editor of the Jordan Times. "He was a very determined journalist, and very driven."

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