Houses reportedly damaged by shelling from government forces in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, photographed on February 11,.

Story highlights

"The night became day," a survivor of the escape attempt recounts

The survivors are "witnesses to a gigantic crime," Avaaz says

British journalist Paul Conroy was one of those who made it to Lebanon

Nearly half the 50 people who attempted to escape were killed, Avaaz says

Tripoli, Lebanon CNN  — 

Syrian troops inflicted heavy losses on a band of opposition activists who were trying to smuggle Western journalists and seriously wounded residents of Homs out of the country, survivors said Tuesday.

Government troops moved in as the group tried to make its way to neighboring Lebanon, leaving 23 of the 50 dead, said Ricken Patel, executive director of the activist group Avaaz. Others were unable to continue toward Lebanon under heavy fire. But Patel said the journalists who escaped are “witnesses to a gigantic crime” who had to be protected from the four-week bombardment of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.

Among those who made it out was British photographer Paul Conroy, who had been wounded in an attack on the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr.

The route they used was a lifeline for the people of Homs, bringing meager supplies of food and medical aid and allowing the wounded to leave. The ambush that survivors recounted Tuesday, which took place on the outskirts of the city, indicates that lifeline has now been cut off.

“When the army came, I was already in a car waiting,” a 40-year-old opposition activist known as Abu Maha told CNN at a hospital in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. “Suddenly the night became day. They were firing flares, and then I heard intense gunfire.”

Patel said the ambush split the group, forcing some of them to turn back toward Homs. One of those who had to turn back was Spanish journalist Javier Espinoza, whom 24-year-old activist Abu Bakir credits with saving his life.

“When the army started firing, I am wounded. I can’t walk. I can’t grip anything with my arm,” he said. “Javier helped me along, got me into a house, and then the people there were able to get me out.”

The other journalists who were part of the breakout are believed to have made it back to Baba Amr after the ambush. But another 10 activists died attempting to bring relief supplies into the neighborhood, Avaaz said in a written statement.

Conroy’s newspaper, the Sunday Times, confirmed Tuesday that he was “in good shape and good spirits.” And Conroy’s wife, Kate, told CNN she was “overjoyed with the news.”

“We just need time to gather our thoughts before it all goes completely mad. I haven’t spoken to him yet, but I’ve heard the good news on the television.”

Patel said the group showed “staggering bravery,” and the journalists in particular “have a larger role.”

“They are witnesses to a crime – witnesses to a gigantic crime,” he said. “The crackdown on Syrian citizens and the shelling of Baba Amr, but also the very specific crime of targeting of journalists.”

Two other journalists, Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed by Syrian artillery fire last week. There was no word on whether their bodies had been recovered.

And there were conflicting reports about another French journalist, Le Figaro reporter Edith Bouvier, who was wounded in Homs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had said Tuesday that she had been released, but he later said reports were unclear. Opposition activists said she remained in Homs.

Bouvier has refused to leave the country without guarantees from the Syrian government that she could keep her photos and recordings, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said Tuesday.

CNN’s Raja Razek, Rima Maktabi and Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report.