• Volunteers die while getting photographer out to Lebanon
• Three other journalists remain trapped in Homs
• UN human rights chief calls for immediate ceasefire
Paul Conroy, the British Sunday Times photographer who was wounded in the besieged city of Homs, has been smuggled out of Syria to Lebanon in a dramatic rescue.
According to those familiar with his escape a number of Syrian opposition activists died during the rescue effort after they came under artillery fire while leaving the city.
The evacuation party came under fire twice. Three activists were killed on the first occasion while more were reportedly killed when they came under fire again.
Despite the successful rescue of Conroy – whose colleague Marie Colvin was killed last week in Homs along with French photographer Remi Ochlik during an attack on the makeshift media centre in the suburb of Baba Amr – three other journalists remain trapped in the city. They are Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro, who sustained a broken femur, French photographer William Daniels and the Middle East correspondent of El Mundo, Javier Espinosa.
The dramatic nature of Conroy’s evacuation underlines the high level of risk being faced by those who have been trying to run medical, food and other supplies into the besieged suburbs of Homs and evacuate the injured, including foreign journalists.
The regime of President Bashar al-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, who was killed during a rocket attack last Wednesday. The group of reporters has been holed up in Baba Amr ever since and protracted negotiations to evacuate them have failed.
According to the Avaaz network, it had been working with 35 Syrian activists in Homs who volunteered 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, who was injured in Homs along with Bouvier.
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.
News of Conroy’s rescue came as the UN’s human rights chief called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria, saying the situation had deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks as authorities reinforced their onslaught against the opposition.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said the international community has to take action to prevent Syrian security forces from continuing their attacks against civilians, which had resulted in “countless atrocities”.
“There must be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to end the fighting and bombardments,” Pillay told an urgent meeting of the UN human rights council.
She urged Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access for aid agencies to Homs and other embattled cities.
The appeal prompted a bitter riposte from Syria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who accused the 47-nation council of promoting terrorism in his country.
Before walking out of the room, Fayssal al-Hamwi said Tuesday’s meeting would only prolong the crisis in his country, where the UN estimates at least 5,400 people have been killed since March. Anti-government activists say the real figure is much higher.
Pillay cited the report of a UN expert panel last week, which concluded that Syrian government officials were responsible for crimes against humanity committed by security forces against opposition members. The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups had also committed gross abuses, it said.
The panel has compiled a confidential list of top-level Syrian officials who could face prosecution over the atrocities.
Pillay reiterated her call for Syria to be referred to the international criminal court “in the face of the unspeakable violations that take place every moment”.
“More than at any other time, those committing atrocities in Syria have to understand that the international community will not stand by and watch this carnage and that their decisions and the actions they take today ultimately will not go unpunished,” she said.
Members of the council are expected to pass a resolution on Tuesday condemning “widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities”.
A draft resolution supported by many Arab and western nations says the regime’s use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack civilian areas has contributed to the deaths of thousands of people since March.
from Martin Chulov, Peter Beaumont