- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels spirited a British photographer who had been trapped in the opposition stronghold of Homs out of the country Tuesday after he was trapped for days under fierce government shelling that killed 13 of those trying to save him, an activist group said.

The global activist group Avaaz said it helped smuggle British photographer Paul Conroy across the border into neighboring Lebanon.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, retracted his statement that French journalist Edith Bouvier also had been evacuated safely to Lebanon.

He said Tuesday that he had been “imprecise” earlier in the day because of the complexities of the situation and that “it is not confirmed that Madame Bouvier is today safe in Lebanon.”

The two were injured last week in a government rocket attack on the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Baba Amr in central Homs. Two other Western journalists, American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed in the same attack. Their bodies and two other uninjured foreign reporters, Frenchman William Daniels and Spaniard Javier Espinosa, may still be in Homs.

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 direr 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 Mr. Assad from power, Tunisian 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 Mr. Assad accepting such an offer are close to nil.

Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.

Mrs. 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. Mrs. 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 had 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Conroy through the neighborhood and 10 others were killed trying to bring in aid while Mr. Conroy was on his way out on Sunday evening. It gave no information on Mr. 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 MR. Conroy “remain unaccounted for.”

Before the mistaken announcement that Ms. Bouvier was out, 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.

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

“I have spoken to Paul this morning, and he sounded in good spirits,” Mr. Conroy’s wife, Kate Conroy, said in a statement Monday. “The family are overjoyed and relieved that he is safe and look forward to getting him home.”

She told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that she wouldn’t comment further for fear of jeopardizing the safety of those still attempting to leave.

Mr. Conroy is 47 and a father of three.

Activists last week posted videos of Mr. Conroy and Ms. Bouvier pleading for help getting out.

Mr. Daniels, the French reporter, last was seen in an amateur video posted by activists last week, standing next to Ms. Bouvier, who was lying on a couch. He appeared uninjured. Ms. Bouvier works for Le Figaro.

Mr. Espinosa, who works for El Mundo, occasionally has been tweeting. His last tweet, sent Sunday, linked to a photo he said was from the Baba Amr neighborhood of blood pooled in a gutter.

Also believed still to be in Baba Amr are the bodies of Ms. Colvin and Mr. Ochlik, who were killed in the same attack that wounded Ms. Bouvier and Mr. Conroy.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry said it is trying to help to evacuate Mr. Espinosa. The newspaper said it does not know if he is injured and last spoke to him Monday.

In Beirut, a British Embassy official told the AP that London is working to repatriate Mr. Conroy.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Mr. Conroy was “safely in Lebanon, where he is receiving full consular assistance.”

In a message on his Twitter account, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, said embassy staff was looking after Mr. Conroy, who was “doing well.” In a statement, the Sunday Times said he was “in good shape and good spirits.”

Mr. Fletcher said Mr. Conroy’s experience was “a chilling testimony to what families in Homs (are) experiencing.”

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley in Paris; Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia; and Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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