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Wounded British journalist escapes Syria

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28 2012 1:10 p.m. MST

Mohammed Said Najaf, 90, mourns his nephew Ghassan Ali, 40, who was killed during clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the government forces in Sarmin, north of Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. According to the residents of the city, at least fourteen people were killed yesterday during clashes between the Free Syrian Army and President Assad's forces.

Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BEIRUT — 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 safely evacuated to Lebanon.

He said Tuesday that he had been "imprecise" earlier in the day due to 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 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."

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