The United States has admitted responsibility for striking a civilian bus inside Western Iraq but added that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government bears ultimate responsibility for the episode because of its non-compliance with UN resolutions, according to a military spokesman at US Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
Five Syrians were killed and 10 were hurt when a US missile struck the bus in Rutba, western Iraq, as it was returning to neighboring Syria on Sunday morning, the Syrian Arab News Agency SANA reported.
The bus was carrying 37 Syrians when it was struck as it drove through Rutba, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the border, it said.
"Unfortunately yesterday (Sunday) coalition forces destroyed a civilian bus during targeting of a bridge on the Iraqi side of the Syrian border," a US military spokesman said in a statement at the coalition's forward command headquarters in Qatar.
"The bridge was in the process of being hit by munitions when the civilian bus attempted to cross. The bus stopped on the bridge and was hit by munitions already released prior to the bus approaching the bridge," he said.
But accounts by survivors of the attack who were interviewed by Syrian television conflict with this explanation. They claimed that the attack did not occur as the bus was crossing the bridge but while it was stationary and passengers were disembarking.
One of the wounded said they were surprised by the coalition air attack which occurred at a rest stop. "Suddenly, we heard an enormous explosion and then the noise of a plane, but we could not see it," he said.
The Syrian foreign ministry reacted by summoning the US and British ambassadors Monday to lodge an official protest over the incident. The ministry had delivered an "official protest" to the two diplomats over "this terrible aggression," the Syrian news agency SANA said.
It also "reserved the right to claim damages and warned against the danger of targeting innocent civilians" in line with international law. SANA called the action 'criminal' and accused the US of contravening the "Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war."
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran said Sunday's air attack indicated that shelling was being focused on civilian cars and targets.
"This is a dangerous matter and refutes claims that they only hit military targets," Omran said. "I don't know how a bus carrying people returning home and escaping bombardment and destruction can be mistaken as a military target. This is a civilian target. This is an example. There are many other targets such as houses, restaurants, gas stations and schools on the border that were damaged or destroyed."
The incident comes at a time of heightened tensions between Syria and the United States over the US-led invasion of Iraq.
US forces threw all hope of winning support from the Iraqi people "out of the window" by placing the American flag on Umm Qasr "even before they controlled it," a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told the BBC's Radio 4, adding that it was a horrible reminder of an occupying power.