Injured Sunday Times photographer is spirited away to Lebanon, but three more are still thought to be trapped
Paul Conroy’s evacuation from the Syrian city of Homs was a 26-hour ordeal that began on Sunday night. The Sunday Times photographer, who had been injured in the shell blast that killed his colleague Marie Colvin, was carried on a stretcher in relays out of the besieged and shell-smashed suburb of Baba Amr and to safety over the Lebanese border nearly 20 miles away, crossing the border in the early hours.
In a day of confusion, news of Conroy’s evacuation leaked out on Tuesday despite efforts to keep a media blackout.
News of his escape was followed by confused reports – at first confirmed by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and later retracted by his office – that the French journalist Edith Bouvier, who suffered a double fracture of her femur in the attack last week that killed Colvin, had also escaped.
However, by the end of the day it was increasingly clear that Bouvier, the French photographer William Daniels and an El Mundo correspondent, Javier Espinosa, were still trapped.
According to the sketchy information available, the journalists appear to have been split up during the heavy shelling of Homs, with only Conroy able to escape.
Confirming his escape, the Sunday Times said Conroy, who was wounded in the leg last week, was in good health. “He is in good shape and in good spirits,” it said.
The rescue of the photographer, whose colleague Colvin was killed along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, was coloured with more tragedy as members of two groups of volunteers involved in the rescue operation were killed by Syrian shellfire.
“We believe they were targeted,” said one man with intimate knowledge of the rescue bid. “They came under accurate fire the first time as Paul Conroy was leaving Baba Amr and three volunteers were killed. They came under fire for a second time as they were getting him out of the city and we believe up to 10 more people were killed.”
Those helping Conroy were members of an opposition network that has been working to smuggle in medicine and supplies through the three-week long siege and evacuate the most badly wounded.
Details of the rescue operation told of a desperate flight harried by pro-regime forces who – according to reports – threw grenades and opened fire on rescuers.
The Syrian opposition local co-ordination committees and the global activist group Avaaz said Conroy had been whisked to safety in neighboring Lebanon. Britain’s Foreign Office also confirmed he was safe and well in Lebanon.
Conroy’s wife, Kate, described the news of his departure as “superb” but declined to comment further for fear of jeopardising others.
The rescue followed several days of failed negotiations involving the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent to evacuate the wounded from Homs.
However – following claims the regime of Bashar al-Assad had arrested some Syrians evacuated, as well as claims that Syrian Red Crescent cars have been used to move those detained by the regime – the trapped journalists refused to leave with the Syrian Red Crescent.
The nature of Conroy’s evacuation underlines the high risks faced by those who have been trying to run medical, food and other supplies into the besieged suburbs of the city and evacuate the injured, including foreign journalists.
Activists believe a drone that has been flying over the city for some time, described by Espinosa, may have been used to direct artillery or mortar fire towards the rescuers.
The regime of Assad, which has recently moved the elite 4th Division commanded by his brother Maher into the battle for Homs, has been using a foreign-supplied drone to target its artillery and mortar fire into the city.
Conroy had twice refused to leave Baba Amr without the body of Colvin. The group of reporters had been holed up there ever since as the protracted negotiations to evacuate them failed.
Avaaz, which has been co-ordinating with Syrian opposition activists, said it had been working with 35 volunteers willing to help free the reporters.
“Paul Conroy’s rescue today is a huge relief but this must be tempered with the news that three remain unaccounted for, and with our respects for the incredibly courageous activists who died during the evacuation attempts,” said Ricken Patel, executive director of Avaaz.
“The rescue is ongoing and we are deeply disappointed that sections of the media broke this story before all the journalists are safe.”
In Beirut, a British embassy official told the Associated Press that London was working on repatriating Conroy.
According to activists, Bouvier and Daniels, who were seen by the Red Cross on Monday, have been refusing to leave Baba Amr without an embassy escort to guarantee their safe passage after it emerged that wounded male civilians who had left the city with the Syrian Red Crescent had been placed under arrest in hospital. In recent days the attacks on Homs have intensified, targeting up to six neighbourhoods of the city.
from Peter Beaumont, Martin Chulov