Journalist wounded in Syria evacuated to safety

This image from amateur video accessed by Associated Press Television News purports to show Paul Conroy of The Sunday Times in a makeshift clinic in Homs, Syria, Feb. 23, 2012.
AP Photo

Updated at 4:26 p.m. ET

BEIRUT - Syrian rebels smuggled a wounded British journalist out of the besieged central city of Homs and whisked him to safety in neighboring Lebanon Tuesday, activist groups said. Thirteen Syrians who were trying to help rescue Paul Conroy and other trapped Western reporters were killed in the operation, according to one of the groups.

The whereabouts of three other foreign journalists who were also stuck in the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Baba Amr neighborhood was unclear. French reporter Edith Bouvier was wounded in the same rocket attack last week that wounded Conroy and killed American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Their bodies, as well as two other foreign reporters, Frenchman William Daniels and Spaniard Javier Espinosa, may still be in Homs.

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Their harrowing ordeal cast a light on the horrors of life under siege in Homs, a stronghold for government opponents waging an uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule. Hundreds have been killed in more than three weeks of relentless shelling of the city, many dying when they ventured out to forage for food as a humanitarian crisis grew more dire by the day.

A top U.N. official released a new death toll for the 11-month-old uprising, saying well over 7,500 people have been killed and the conflict looked increasingly like civil war. Activist groups said Monday that the death toll had surpassed 8,000.

Just days after Western and Arab nations met in Tunisia to forge a strategy on how to push Assad from power, Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki said Tuesday he was ready to offer asylum to the Syrian leader as part of a negotiated solution to the conflict. However the chances of Assad accepting such an offer are close to nil.

The U.N. human rights chief said the situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said her office has received reports that Syrian military and security forces "have launched massive campaigns of arrest" and launched an onslaught against government opponents that has deprived many civilians of food, water and medical supplies. Pillay told an urgent meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council that "hundreds of people have reportedly been killed since the start of this latest assault in the beginning of February 2012."

She called on Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access to aid agencies.

Despite international pressure that mounts every day, the regime kept up its fierce bombardment of the central region. Activists reported overnight the deaths of 144 more people in unrest across the country — scores of them in Baba Amr by security forces as they tried to flee.

They said at least 16 were killed in shelling of that and other Homs neighborhoods Tuesday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling of the central town of Halfaya also killed at least four civilians and wounded dozens, many seriously. The Syrian opposition group Local Coordination Committees said many more people had been killed in both places, putting the nationwide death toll at 92.

Both groups said Baba Amr was under intense shelling. The LCC said 50 people were killed in Homs and 27 in the province of Hama.

The Observatory said armed rebels known as the Free Syrian Army killed five soldiers in overnight clashes in the southern town of Dael. The LCC said the FSA struck an army convoy with a roadside bomb in Tafas, causing "multiple casualties."

The LCC and Avaaz said Conroy was smuggled over the border to Lebanon. Rima Fleihan, an LCC spokeswoman, said the Sunday Times photographer was smuggled out by Syrian army defectors.

Avaaz, which said it organized the evacuation with local Syrian activists, said 35 Syrians volunteered to help get the journalists out and bring aid in. Of those, 13 were killed. Avaaz said three were killed in government shelling while trying to help Conroy through the neighborhood and 10 others were killed trying to bring in aid while Conroy was on his way out on Sunday evening. It gave no information on Conroy's journey Monday to cross the Lebanese border on Tuesday.

It said the remaining foreign journalists who had been stuck in the area with Conroy "remain unaccounted for."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, retracted a statement that Bouvier also safely reached Lebanon. He said Tuesday that he was "imprecise" earlier in the day due to the complexities of the situation.

"It is not confirmed that Madame Bouvier is today safe in Lebanon," he said.

Before the mistaken announcement, the LCC said other Western journalists were negotiating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to be allowed to leave Syria without having their videos and photos confiscated by authorities. Local activists accuse the group of collaborating with the Syrian government.