Michael Mainville, AFP
Last updated: 2 March, 2012

French journalists arrive home after Syria ordeal

Two French journalists evacuated from Syria’s battered city Homs arrived Friday at a military airport near Paris after escaping the besieged protest hub where two of their colleagues were killed.

A plane transporting wounded reporter Edith Bouvier, 31, and photographer William Daniels, 34, flew in from Beirut, arriving at Villacoublay airport where they were met by relatives and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy, who announced Friday that Paris would close its embassy in Damascus to denounce President Bashar al-Assad’s “scandalous” repression, paid homage to the journalists on their arrival.

He said that Syrian authorities will “be called to account for their crimes before international criminal jurisdictions”.

“The crime that they committed, the crimes that they have committed, will not go unpunished,” Sarkozy said, also praising a “chivalrous” Daniels for staying with Bouvier in the Homs suburb of Baba Amr during days of heavy regime bombardment.

“I would like to thank all Libyan authorities and equally hail the availability of Russian authorities who were ready to help us,” he said and hailed the “courage of all Syrian democrats who had accompanied Edith Bouvier and William Daniels until the Lebanese border” where they arrived late Thursday.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told reporters in Moscow that a helicopter and a vehicle had been sent to the area to evacuate the two journalists but the mission could not go through as they were “in the hands of insurgents”.

Daniels praised the people of Homs, saying: “All of Baba Amr supported us. They treated us like kings. We were in one of the most protected houses. These people are heroes who are being massacred.”

His eyes welling up with tears, Daniels added: “Those who saved our lives are surely dead, although I don’t know. … It was nine days of non-stop nightmare with our hopes crashing over a silly detail just about every day.”

An ambulance parked on the tarmac took Bouvier under police escort to a military hospital for treatment for a broken leg suffered during the deadly bombardment of an improvised media centre in Homs on February 22.

The rocket attack on Baba Amr killed French photographer Remi Ochlik as well as veteran Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, and wounded Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy.

Paris prosecutors on Friday opened a murder probe into the attack.

The bodies of Ochlik and Colvin were meanwhile formally identified in Damascus Friday by the French and Polish ambassadors Eric Chevallier and Michal Murkocinski.

The Sunday Times has said Colvin and Ochlik were killed when a rocket hit the front of the building they were in, burying them both in debris.

Syrian authorities have been accused of deliberately targeting journalists during the uprising against Assad’s regime.

Sarkozy said the Syrian government’s response to efforts to evacuate the two reporters had been “particularly unacceptable”, as he expressed outrage at the continued violence in the country.

“What is going on is scandalous. There are more than 8,000 dead, hundreds of children, and the city of Homs faces the risk of being wiped off the map,” Sarkozy said at the close of an EU summit in Brussels before returning to Paris.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the Syrian regime had refused to assist in the evacuation.

“I will say no more about the route or the methods of the evacuation out of concern for the safety of those involved,” Juppe told reporters in Bordeaux.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero praised the Syrian opposition activists involved in evacuating the French reporters.

“We will not forget the Syrians, who will probably remain anonymous, who allowed our two compatriots to get out of the city of Homs and get to Lebanon safe and sound,” he said.

A network of Syrians linked with global rights group Avaaz has been involved in smuggling journalists out of the country, and the group said at least 13 activists had died during the efforts.

Valero said Bouvier was in stable condition following her ordeal.

The evacuation of the French journalists followed the earlier escapes from Syria to Lebanon of British photographer Conroy and Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, who were also caught up in the attack on the media centre.