Wounded British photographer Paul Conroy was safe in Lebanon on Tuesday after being smuggled out of the besieged Syrian city of Homs, as France’s president retracted a statement that a French colleague had also escaped.
President Nicolas Sarkozy went back on an earlier statement that Le Figaro newspaper’s Edith Bouvier, who has multiple fractures, had been rescued from the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs.
And a management source at Le Figaro told AFP that Bouvier, 31, was “not in Lebanon but still in Syria.”
Earlier, a Lebanese official told AFP: “The information we have is that both arrived overnight in Lebanon.”
“Paul Conroy is at the British embassy and in good condition. Edith Bouvier is also here in Lebanon but we have no information as to where she is exactly,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In London, the Foreign Office in London said freelancer Conroy was “receiving full consular assistance from our embassy.”
Thirteen activists were killed trying to help the Western journalists and to bring in aid to the Homs rebel stronghold of Baba Amr, international activist group Avaaz said.
UN officials called for an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into violence-torn regions of Syria, where the United Nations now says well over 7,500 people have been killed.
The death toll in the Syrian government crackdown is now “certainly well over 7,500,” B. Lynn Pascoe, UN undersecretary general for political affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday.
The international community’s failure to “stop the carnage” is encouraging the Syrian government to believe that it can act with “impunity,” Pascoe said.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that declaring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal could “complicate” a solution to the crisis.
“I also think that from long experience that can complicate a resolution of a difficult, complex situation because it limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power,” Clinton told a Senate hearing.
Earlier, a spokeswoman for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper said Conroy was “in good shape and good spirits” following his escape.
A father of three, Conroy was working for the weekly during a rocket attack on February 22 on a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr.
His family expressed relief.
“I have spoken to Paul this morning and he sounded in good spirits. The family is overjoyed and relieved that he is safe and look forward to getting him home,” his wife Kate said in a statement.
Avaaz’s Wissam Tarif said the organisation coordinated his rescue from the battered city in central Syria and across the border.
“Avaaz coordinated with Syrian activists Conroy’s exit from Homs and his arrival in Lebanon,” Tarif told AFP in Beirut.
US veteran reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in last week’s rocket attack in Homs while Bouvier and Conroy were wounded.
Two other journalists trapped in Homs are William Daniels, a photographer also on assignment for Le Figaro, and Spaniard Javier Espinosa, who works for Spanish daily El Mundo.
The Syrian Red Crescent and the Red Cross had been trying for days to rescue the wounded pair and to retrieve the bodies of the dead but conditions were deemed too dangerous.
On Tuesday, rescuers from both agencies left Homs after another failed attempt, officials from both organisations said, adding that they would try to draw up a new approach.
The head of the Syrian Red Crescent, Abdel Rahman Attar, said the Western journalists trapped in Homs had been refusing to be evacuated by his organisation despite its “total cooperation with the ICRC.”
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said it was saddened by allegations that it could not be trusted to work as a neutral in the country’s conflict.
“We … stress that these allegations are not only untrue, but are an affront to the sacrifices our staff and volunteers continue to make to gain access and provide humanitarian aid to all Syrian people in need.”
Activists of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page said Baba Amr was “bombarded for the 25th straight day by regime forces” on Tuesday.
“The shells are falling and the world watches,” said an activist in a video showing columns of black smoke rising from bombed buildings.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said 31 people were killed in the country on Tuesday, including six soldiers, with the heaviest losses in Homs which the regime shelled for a 25th straight day.
Meanwhile, an activist on the ground said the military has sent elite reinforcements from a unit commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher, to Homs, which could be a prelude to a final assault.
Hadi Abdullah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission told AFP on the telephone that Fourth Armoured Division troops had taken up positions around Baba Amr.
Activists also reported that thousands of mourners took to the streets of Damascus for the funerals of civilians killed in the regime’s crackdown.
In Geneva, UN rights chief Pillay urged a ceasefire at the opening of an urgently arranged debate on Syria at a Human Rights Council meeting.
“There must be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to end the fighting and bombardments,” said Pillay.
The Syrian representative to the United Nations, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, walked out of the meeting, telling the assembly: “We declare our withdrawal from this sterile discussion.”
Western powers have said the continued bloodshed in Syria calls into question the veracity of a referendum held at the weekend, which Damascus said resulted in almost 90 percent of voters approving a new constitution.