- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels smuggled a wounded British journalist out of the besieged central city of Homs on Tuesday and whisked him to safety in neighboring Lebanon, activist groups said.

Thirteen Syrians who were trying to help rescue Paul Conroy and other trapped Western reporters were killed in the operation, one of the groups said.

They did not manage to evacuate a wounded French journalist, two other Western journalists or the bodies of an American reporter and a French photographer killed last week.

The Syrian opposition group Local Coordination Committees and the global activist group Avaaz said Mr. Conroy was the only foreign journalist to escape Syria. Rima Fleihan, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees, said the Sunday Times photographer was smuggled out by Syrian army defectors.

The activist group 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 Mr. Conroy through the neighborhood and 10 others were killed trying to bring in aid while Mr. Conroy was on his way out Sunday evening.

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

The Local Coordination Committees said other Western journalists are negotiating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to be allowed to leave Syria without having their videos and photos confiscated by authorities.

All the journalists killed and wounded in Homs were smuggled into Syria from Lebanon illegally.

“I have heard that he is out,” said Mr. Conroy’s wife, Kate. “All I can say is that we are delighted and overjoyed at the news, but I am not going to say any more than that at this point.”

Mr. Conroy’s father, Les Conroy, said: “We’re all very relieved and happy that Paul’s out.”

The regime kept up its fierce bombardment of the central region, a major stronghold of the opposition waging an 11-month-old uprising to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad.

Activists reported overnight the deaths of 144 more people in unrest across the country — scores of them in the rebel-controlled Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr by security forces as they tried to flee — and said at least nine more were killed by shelling Tuesday.

After a weekend meeting during which Western and Arab nations tried to forge a unified strategy to help push Mr. Assad from power, the U.N.’s human rights chief said Tuesday the situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.

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.

Ms. 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.

In Beirut, a British Embassy official told the Associated Press that London is working to repatriate Mr. Conroy, who was injured in the Homs along with French journalist Edith Bouvier.

The Local Coordination Committees spokeswoman said Ms. Bouvier remained behind in Homs.

American Marie Colvin and Frenchman Remi Ochlik were killed in the same attack and their bodies are still in Syria.

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said the British government could not immediately confirm the reports.

“All the necessary work is being done on repatriating Marie Colvin’s body and ensuring Paul Conroy gets to safety. For security reasons we can’t give you any more detail of that at the moment,” said the spokesman, on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

News International, publisher of the Sunday Times, said it could not immediately offer comment on Mr. Conroy’s whereabouts or condition.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling of the central town of Halfaya killed at least four civilians and wounded dozens, many of them seriously.

The Local Coordination Committees said 20 people were killed and 100 wounded in the town.

Both groups said the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the central city of Homs was under intense shelling. The Local Coordination Committees said 12 people were killed in Homs, while the Observatory for Human Rights said five.

At least 41 people were killed by troops throughout Syria on Tuesday, the Local Coordination Committees said.