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Journalists killed in Syria rocket strike 'were targeted'

Intercepted radio messages suggest Assad's army was told to attack press

Marie Colvin, one of the most eminent war correspondents of her generation, was killed yesterday along with Remi Ochlik, an award winning photographer from France, while covering the siege of the Syrian city of Homs

Two other journalists, including Paul Conroy, a photographer who also worked for The Sunday Times with Colvin, were injured when the house in which they were staying was hit by rockets. Fellow journalists, human rights activists and politicians condemned the killings amid claims that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad knew the building was being used by foreign media.

Colvin, 55, had written a powerful and poignant dispatch for her newspaper in which she described the suffering inflicted on the population of Homs, which has become a symbol of resistance during the Syrian uprising.

She had also appeared on a number of international broadcast networks, including the BBC and CNN, to accuse President Assad's forces of murder. She said the regime was peddling "complete and utter lies that they are only targeting terrorists". Describing what was happening as "absolutely sickening", she declared: "The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians." She also gave a charged description of watching a two-year-old die from a shrapnel wound.

Jean-Pierre Perrin, a reporter with the French newspaper Libération, was with Colvin in Homs last week. He claimed they were told that the Syrian army was "deliberately" planning to shell their makeshift press centre. There were also unconfirmed reports that intercepted radio traffic between Syrian army officers contained threats to kill foreign journalists.

The Syrian ambassador to London, Dr Sami Khiyami, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be told the UK expects prompt arrangements to be made for the repatriation of the journalists' bodies and for the injured British photographer to be given medical treatment.

Colvin, an American who had worked for The Sunday Times since 1985, seamlessly used both steeliness and charm in pursuit of stories. She lost her left eye to shrapnel in 2001 while working in Sri Lanka.

When she was stopped at a checkpoint after the fall of Tripoli in Libya last year, she got past a particularly obdurate militia commander by browbeating him. But she won him over enough to have him ask for his picture to be taken with her. "You never know, we might need him on the way back," she pointed out.

She was fiercely proud of what the best kind of journalism could achieve. "You hear all this talk about the meaning of the media, the need for integrity etc," she said while discussing the Leveson Inquiry. "But isn't it quite simple? You just try to find out the truth of what's going on and report it the best way you can. And because we are kind of romantic, our sympathy goes towards the underdog."

Colvin was adamant, however, that it was necessary to relax at times on tough assignments. One night in Tunis, at the start of the Arab Spring, her reaction to journalists being refused a late drink was to tell the waiter: "If you don't serve us I warn you I will take off my eye patch." We were served with alacrity.

She could organise a party anywhere. I have fond memories of a dinner at the BBC house in Kabul, when she decided everyone was being far too serious. She got the furniture pulled back, the carpet lifted and got everyone up for not very refined but highly enthusiastic dancing.

As tributes poured in, Simon Kelner, chief executive of the Journalism Foundation and former editor of The Independent, said: "Marie Colvin embodied all the qualities required of a great journalist: bravery, integrity and a fearless desire to seek the truth. At a time when newspapers are under intense scrutiny, her work is a reminder of the fundamental purpose of journalism, and her death, along with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, represents a dark day indeed."

In her own words: Life on the front line

In November 2010, St Bride's Church – the "journalists' church" on Fleet Street – held a service to commemorate reporters, cameramen and support staff killed while covering the conflicts of the 21st century's first decade. Marie Colvin delivered the address. In it, she said:

"Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan... putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days later, Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs. Many of you here must have asked, or be asking now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference? I faced that question when I [lost an eye in Sri Lanka]. One paper ran a headline saying, 'has Marie Colvin gone too far this time'? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it. Today in this church are friends, colleagues and families who know what I am talking about, and bear the cost of those experiences, as do their families and loved ones. We must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories. We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power... We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians."