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2 French journalists safely out of Syria

By the CNN Wire Staff
March 1, 2012 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian forces "very systematic" in their attacks, Spanish photographer says
  • 45 were killed Thursday, the opposition group LCC says
  • The Free Syrian Army retreats from Baba Amr
  • ICRC, Syrian Red Crescent to start Baba Amr aid

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(CNN) -- Two French journalists who had been trapped for days in the besieged Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr have been moved to safety in Lebanon, officials said Thursday.

"I can confirm that it's official," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told BFM-TV about the whereabouts of Edith Bouvier and William Daniels. "They are in security."

In a statement, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said they were being looked after by the French Embassy, "and everything is being done to provide them with medical attention and to return them home as quickly as possible."

Bouvier was wounded in an attack last week on a makeshift media center in Baba Amr that killed French journalist Remi Ochlik and U.S. journalist Marie Colvin.

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The opposition group Avaaz said it helped Bouvier and Daniels to escape. The pair had left Baba Amr with British photographer Paul Conroy and Spanish photographer Javier Espinosa on Sunday, "but were forced to return back to Baba Amr after they were targeted on the outskirts of the town," Avaaz said in a statement. Bouvier, who had broken her femur. was evacuated on a wooden stretcher.

A second evacuation attempt on Tuesday moved Daniels and Bouvier to a safer neighborhood of Homs and from there to Lebanon.

"Against incredible odds, Syrian activists have rescued all four international journalists from the hell of Baba Amr," Avaaz said. The group said 13 activists from Homs died during the rescue efforts.

Conroy and Espinosa also made it to safety.

Apparently, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency did not get that message. Citing a source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, it reported Thursday that authorities had discovered the body of Espinosa along with those of Colvin and Ochlik after the Syrian Army "cleansed Baba Amr from the foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists."

After DNA analysis confirms the identities, they will be handed over to the embassies of Poland, on behalf of the U.S. Embassy, France and Spain, it said.

In an interview from Beirut, Espinosa said that the report of his death "would be a nice joke" if not for the suffering of the people of Baba Amr.

He described a typical day in the neighborhood as one that routinized horror: Shelling began at 6 a.m. and continued until 1 p.m., when the army stopped for precisely one hour. "They just stop for lunch," he told CNN. At 2 p.m., the shelling resumed until 6 p.m., when it ended until picking up again the following morning, he said. "It's very systematic."

The shelling was concentrated in a 12-square-kilometer (5-square-mile) area, he added.

Espinosa said he too was in the media center on the day when Colvin and Ochlik were killed and Bouvier was wounded. "We were just sleeping and the rockets started falling down on our building," striking it at least twice, he said. The media officer told the journalists inside to get out, and several complied immediately, he said.

But as Espinosa was trying to get outside, someone inside the building heard an incoming shell and told him to return, which he did, taking shelter next to a wall. By then, "Marie and Remi were already outside, where they received the full explosion of the rocket."

The French journalists' rescue came on the same day that aid groups got the green light to enter Baba Amr beginning Friday and government forces moved to take control of the restive neighborhood.

Security forces barged into homes and snipers took positions on the rooftops of government buildings after opposition forces retreated, activists said.

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The army "entered Baba Amr today in full force" amid what one activist source called a "bloodbath" in the neighborhood, which has been shelled daily for more than three weeks, said Avaaz.

"There are bodies on the street," said Alice Jay, an Avaaz official. "Residents have never been more desperate. There is no food, no medicine and civilians are melting snow for drinking water."

The forces effectively ignored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Thursday that condemned Syria's "widespread and systematic violations of human rights."

The government forces' advance came as the Free Syrian Army said Thursday it had decided to withdraw for the sake of the civilians remaining in the neighborhood, citing dismal humanitarian conditions and a lack of arms among resistance fighters.

It said around 4,000 civilians were refusing to leave the neighborhood.

"There is no food whatsoever, no medicines, no water and no electricity. There is no communication in the area, thus making matters much worse," it said. "The Assad army has destroyed most of the civilian homes up to now" using missiles, mortar shells and helicopters.

As the FSA, Avaaz and other groups urged international humanitarian aid for Homs, Syrian authorities permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent to take relief to Baba Amr.

ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini said that, beginning Friday, the government would permit humanitarian workers to deliver of food and medical supplies and to carry out evacuation operations.

Also, the U.N. Security Council called Thursday on Syrian authorities to grant Valerie Amos, the U.N. under secretary -general for humanitarian affairs and the emergency relief coordinator, "immediate and unhindered access" to Syria.

British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant said Amos had not been granted authorization to visit Syria "in a timely manner, despite repeated requests and intense diplomatic contacts aimed at securing Syrian approval."

A spokesman for Syria's Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said it didn't reject her visit, but it said officials were "surprised about her having arrived in the region and asking to come to Syria on a date not suitable for us."

"The Syrian side is ready to continue consultation with Amos on a date that is appropriate for both sides," the spokesman said, SANA said.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist group, said at least 45 people died in Syria on Thursday -- 24 in Homs, seven in the Quneitra province town of Jabata, and others in the Damascus suburbs, the Hama suburbs, Daraa and Idlib.

CNN cannot independently confirm casualty reports by the opposition, activists or the Syrian government because access to the country by international journalists has been severely restricted.

Avaaz said 17 civilians were beheaded or partially beheaded in a farming area on the outskirts of Baba Amr.

Dima Moussa, spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Council of Homs, said conclusions about the conditions in Homs are "still, for the most part, speculative" because of communication problems.

"What we know is that Free Syrian Army soldiers who were in Baba Amr have withdrawn in an attempt to protect the civilians from further attacks and violence by the Assad forces, which had escalated their offense against the neighborhood," Moussa told CNN. "A ground attack was going to surely result in more civilian casualties, and therefore, the FSA soldiers withdrew to continue their work, where their number one concern is protecting the civilians.

"Nevertheless, the Assad forces carried out a raid-and-arrest campaign in the neighborhood, where they went in and started randomly raiding civilians' homes and arresting them, or whatever is left of them in the neighborhood," she said.

Syria's crackdown against protesters rallying to redress a range of political and social grievances erupted in mid-March of last year.

The United Nations estimates 7,500 deaths have resulted and the LCC said around 9,000 people have died. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the violence.

Thirty-seven of the nations in the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, voted for the resolution, including the United States and several Arab countries. China, Russia and Cuba opposed it and India, the Philippines and Ecuador abstained.

"The international community sends yet another unequivocal call to the Syrian authorities to stop human rights violations against its population and to address urgent humanitarian needs," said the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. "The situation in Syria must remain at the center of the world's attention and every possible lever must be pulled to stop the violence and the killing of civilians."

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament he was withdrawing diplomats from Syria and suspending embassy operations for security reasons.

CNN's Kamal Ghattas, Joe Sterling, Raja Razek, Tom Watkins, Aliza Kassim and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

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