There was deep concern last night over the whereabouts of three Western journalists who are believed to be trapped in the restive Syrian city of Homs after an overnight rescue attempt succeeded in extracting British photographer Paul Conroy, but which had also led to the death of at least 13 opposition activists who had volunteered for the operation.
It is understood that the mission to rescue Mr Conroy, whose leg was badly injured in a raid on the Baba Amr district of Homs last week that killed his Sunday Times colleague Marie Colvin and the photographer Remi Ochlik, also included a bid to rescue three other reporters. Edith Bouvier of France's Le Figaro, Javier Espinosa of the Spanish daily El Mundo, and William Daniels, a Paris-based American freelance on assignment with Le Figaro were all left behind however, when the operation came under heavy fire.
Ms Bouvier in particular is causing concern because of a severe leg injury. Hope had been raised about her safe release last night when French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that she was also in Lebanon. "I am very happy for her and very happy that the nightmare is ending," Mr Sarkozy said.
But after two hours of utter confusion, the French ambassador in Beirut, Ms Bouvier's newspaper and the French foreign ministry said they could not confirm the President's claim. "It is rather bizarre but we are unable to confirm the president's statement," said a French foreign office spokesman. It was later retracted by an embarrassed Mr Sarkozy, who blamed poor communications with Homs. Le Figaro issued a statement last night saying that Ms Bouvier, "is not in Lebanon but still in Syria".
It was rumoured yesterday that Ms Bouvier and Mr Daniels had refused to leave with the activists, insisting on an embassy escort.
A source close to Paul Conroy said that the 47 year-old had described the current situation inside Baba Amr as "desperate" with supplies of food and water running out; activists said that another 10 smugglers, who were transporting medical supplies and food into Homs, were also killed in the bombardment of the city.
Mr Conroy's arrival in Lebanon was confirmed by both the Sunday Times and the Foreign Office. The British Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, said: "We have been looking after him since this morning. He is doing well." Kate Conroy, Mr Conroy's wife, said: "I have spoken to Paul this morning and he sounded in good spirits. The family are overjoyed and relieved that he is safe and look forward to getting him home."
Mr Conroy's rescue was co-ordinated by Avaaz, a campaigning group who have spent the past 10 months establishing a network of opposition activists. Alex Renton, a spokesman for the group in Beirut, described the tense operation in which Conroy was rescued.
From the day of the deadly attack that took the lives of Ms Colvin and Mr Ochlik and wounded the others, Syrian activists had volunteered to help smuggle the journalists out of the city. "They wanted to help their friends the journalists who had been helping them," he said.
Mr Renton said that a rescue operation had begun on Sunday evening following a particularly intense bombardment of the city but that, "it went horribly wrong very early on". The route from Homs to the Lebanese border is only 20 miles but involves travel by circuitous smuggling routes past Syrian government positions and border patrols. It took Mr Conroy 24 hours to reach the Lebanese border, sometimes having to hobble on his injured leg.
"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, the executive director of Avaaz, who added that there were more than 50 activists involved in the operation.
Local journalists volunteering for the network have reported that Syrian security forces are currently mounting the "most savage and sustained assault since continuous shelling of the city began 23 days ago".
There were also reports last night that President Assad had sent his elite armoured division into Homs. Opposition activists said tanks and troops of the Fourth Division, commanded by Assad's brother Maher, moved overnight into main streets around the Baba Amr. The tanks had "Fourth Division Monsters" painted on them, they said.
Tens of thousands of people are now said to be at risk in Homs. As many as 125 people died in Syria on Monday, many of them in a single incident at a checkpoint in Homs, according to activists. Sixty-five more were killed yesterday, they said. Death tolls remain very hard to verify as media access across the country is tightly restricted.
There were also unconfirmed reports last night that France could be about to launch an operation to free the remaining reporters.
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