Beirut: Syrian rebels smuggled a wounded British journalist out of the besieged central city of Homs Tuesday and whisked him to safety in neighboring Lebanon, activist groups said. They did not manage to evacuate a wounded French journalist or the bodies of two other Western reporters killed last week.
The Syrian opposition group Local Coordination Committees and global activist group Avaaz said Paul Conroy was the only foreign journalist to escape Syria. Rima Fleihan, an LCC spokeswoman, said the Sunday Times photographer was smuggled out by Syrian army defectors. The LCC 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," Conroy`s wife Kate Conroy said. "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." Conroy`s father Les Conroy said his wife had spoken with their son and described him as being in "very good spirits," though he confirmed he had not personally talked with the photographer.
"We`re all very relieved and happy that Paul`s out," he said.
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 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 on Tuesday.
After a weekend meeting where Western and Arab nations tried to forge a unified strategy to help push 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. 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 said that London is working to repatriate Conroy, who was injured in the Homs along with French journalist Edith Bouvier. The LCC spokeswoman said 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 UK 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 customary condition of anonymity in line with policy.
News International, publisher of The Sunday Times, said it could not immediately offer comment on 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 LCC 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 LCC said 12 people were killed in Homs while the Observatory said five.
The LCC said at least 41 people were killed by troops throughout Syria Tuesday.