By Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Gunmen broke through the gates of a pro-government Syrian TV channel headquarters on Wednesday, bombing buildings and shooting dead three employees, state media said, in one of the boldest attacks yet on a symbol of the authoritarian state.
President Bashar al-Assad declared late on Tuesday that his country was at war and the attack on Ikhbariya's offices - located 20 km (15 miles) south of the capital - as well as overnight fighting on the outskirts of Damascus show that 16 months of violence is now rapidly encroaching on the capital.
Footage aired on Ikhbariya, which resumed broadcasting shortly after the attack, showed bullet holes pockmarked a two-storey concrete building and pools of blood on the floor. One building made of corrugated iron had been almost completely destroyed and flames licked at the metal frame.
"I heard a small explosion then a huge explosion and gunmen ran in. They ransacked the offices and entirely destroyed the newsroom," an employee who works at the offices in the town of Drousha told state media at the scene.
The Syrian press is tightly regulated by the Ministry of Information. Although Ikhbariya is privately owned, opponents of Assad say it is a government mouthpiece.
During the pro-democracy revolt against the Assad family's four-decade rule, Ikhbariya has been pushing to counter what it says is a campaign of misinformation by Western and Arab satellite channels on the uprising, which it describes as a foreign-backed terrorist conspiracy.
SYRIA AT WAR
"We live in a real state of war from all angles," Assad told a cabinet he appointed on Tuesday in a speech broadcast on state television. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."
The declaration that marks a change of rhetoric from Assad, who had long dismissed the uprising against him as the work of scattered militants funded from abroad.
The rambling speech - Assad also commented on subjects as far afield as the benefits of renewable energy - left little room for compromise. He denounced the West, which "takes and never gives, and this has been proven at every stage".
The United Nations accuses Syrian forces of killing more than 10,000 people during the conflict, which began with a popular uprising and has built up into an armed insurgency against four decades of rule by Assad and his father.
Video published by activists on Tuesday recorded heavy gunfire and explosions in suburbs of Damascus. A trail of fresh blood on a sidewalk in the suburb of Qudsiya led into a building where one casualty was taken. A naked man writhed in pain, his body pierced by shrapnel.
Syria's state news agency SANA said "armed terrorist groups" had blocked the old road from Damascus to Beirut on Tuesday.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief said it was too dangerous for a U.N. observer team, which suspended operations this month, to resume monitoring a ceasefire. The truce, part of a peace plan backed by international envoy Kofi Annan, has long since been abandoned in all but name.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group which compiles reports from rebels, said 135 people were killed across Syria on Tuesday, making it one of the bloodiest days of the conflict. Its toll included 87 civilians it said had been killed, including 28 in Qudsiya.
It described heavy fighting near the headquarters of the Republican Guard in Qudsiya, and in other Damascus suburbs of al-Hama and Mashrou' Dumar, just 9 km from the capital.
SANA said dozens of rebels were killed or wounded and others arrested in fighting on the old Beirut road. Government forces seized rocket launchers, sniper rifles, machineguns and a huge amount of ammunition, it said.
Accounts from the rebels and the government cannot be verified because access for journalists is restricted.
In neighboring Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan ordered his armed forces to react to any threat from Syria near the border after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish warplane on Friday off the Mediterranean coast.
"Our rational response should not be perceived as weakness, our mild manners do not mean we are a tame lamb," he told a meeting of his parliamentary party. "Everybody should know that Turkey's wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable."
NATO member states, summoned by Turkey to an urgent meeting in Brussels, condemned Syria over the incident in which two airmen were killed. The Western alliance called the incident "unacceptable" but stopped short of threatening retaliation.
NATO's cautious wording demonstrated the fear of Western powers as well as Turkey that armed intervention in Syria could stir sectarian war across the region. So far there has been no sign of an appetite for intervention like that carried out last year by NATO against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
A Turkish official said Ankara's ambassador had not asked the NATO envoys for action "at this stage". Erdogan's speech was seen in Turkey as less belligerent than it might have been.
"Those who want war may be disappointed by the prime minister's speech," Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote. "But a big part of society breathed a sigh of relief."
Nevertheless, Turkish officials say they are ready for scenarios that include a possible need to protect civilians near the border. A Turkish official who asked not to be identified said: "For Turkey there are two bad scenarios: one, a mass influx of refugees and two, large-scale massacres in Syria."
"Ankara has not taken a decision for military intervention or a humanitarian corridor at the moment. But if these are needed, everybody would prefer that they will be done with international legitimacy. However, if things go really badly we have to be ready for any kind of eventuality," he added.
Erdogan said the armed forces' rules of engagement had been changed as a result of the attack, which Turkey says took place without warning in international air space.
"Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target," he said.
Russia, which has acted as Assad's main defender in the U.N. Security Council, called for restraint and said shooting down the aircraft should not be "viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action."
Syria says it had no choice but to destroy the plane as it entered Syrian air space flying low and at high speed. It found out it was Turkish only after the engagement. Turkey insists its aircraft entered Syrian air space only briefly by mistake.
Turkey is the base for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and shelters more than 30,000 refugees - a number Erdogan worries could rise sharply as fighting spreads. Rebel soldiers move regularly across the border and defectors muster inside Turkey.
Moscow has close relations with Damascus and has a naval base at Syria's port city of Tartus close to the spot where the jet was downed. Some defense experts said the Turkish plane could have been testing Russian-supplied Syrian air defenses.
Moscow-based defense think-tank CAST said Russia was expected to deliver nearly half a billion dollars worth of air defense systems, repaired helicopters and fighter jets to Syria this year despite international pressure to halt the arms sales.
Russia said it was crucial Iran should also attend a meeting on Syria of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and regional players organized by Annan in Geneva this weekend.
Western countries oppose Iran, Syria's closest regional ally, taking part in the meeting and some diplomats have said it was not entirely clear whether the meeting would take place.
(Additional reporting by Jon Hemming, Jonathon Burch and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Mirna Sleiman in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Jon Boyle)