BEIRUT: Intensive efforts were under way Thursday to evacuate three reporters and repatriate the remains of two killed a day earlier in the besieged Baba Amro neighborhood of Syria’s central city of Homs.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was doing “all the necessary work” to retrieve the body of journalist Marie Colvin from Syria and to help a wounded British photographer Paul Conroy reach safety.
France, meanwhile, was understood to be making efforts to send a team to Homs to recover the bodies, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy Wednesday accused Syria of “murder.”
Award-winning American war correspondent Marie Colvin of Britain’s Sunday Times and freelance French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed Wednesday when a residential building operating as a makeshift media center came under heavy missile attack by Syrian forces.
Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, 47, and French reporter Edith Bouvier, from France’s daily Le Figaro, were also wounded, while another French reporter, William Daniels, was trapped but uninjured.
“All the necessary work is being done on repatriating Marie Colvin’s body and ensuring Paul Conroy gets to safety. We can’t give you any more detail of that at the moment,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Earlier the Foreign Office said Conroy was on his way out of Homs but a government source said the situation had changed.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said the group was making arrangements to get the injured out to safety and the bodies returned.
But with no refrigeration facilities, “it is a race against time,” he said, voicing concern that the two may have to be buried in Homs.
“The plan is still to get the bodies out,” he told The Daily Star by telephone. “The roads out of Homs are effectively blocked. There are no refrigeration facilities or electricity, so we really do have a small window of opportunity to get them out.”
Describing the situation as “extremely sensitive,” the organization is understood to be working with groups on the ground in Homs to negotiate safe passage. Any medical evacuation would require medical assistance and an ambulance, HRW said.
London summoned Syria’s ambassador to Britain Wednesday to demand that Syrian authorities facilitate “immediate arrangements for the repatriation of the journalists’ bodies,” as well as medical treatment for Conroy.
In a video posted on YouTube, Conroy issued a plea for government help for his evacuation from what appeared to be a makeshift hospital inside Homs.
“I’m currently being looked after by the Free Syrian Army medical staff, who are treating me with the best medical treatment available. It’s important to add that I am here as a guest and have not been captured.
“Obviously any assistance I can be given by government agencies would be welcome.”
Bouvier and Daniels also made please for a cease-fire to facilitate their evacuation. “I need to be operated on as soon as possible,” Bouvier said.
Damascus had said it was not responsible for the deaths of the two journalists, who “infiltrated Syria at their own risk,” but offered condolences to Colvin’s family.
But the information minister said Thursday he had instructed the governor of Homs to try to evacuate Western journalists killed or wounded in the city. “For humanitarian reasons, and although they entered the country without a permit to go to an area controlled by terrorists, the governor of Homs has been told to exert every effort possible to evacuate the journalists,” Adnan Mahmud told AFP.
According to reports pieced together by Human Rights Watch and activist groups on the ground, the attack happened at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“It involved a number of shells and missiles hitting the second and then the third floor of the building,” said HRW’s Bouckaert.
He said the journalists were killed when they suffered massive injuries as they tried to run from the building.
Bouckaert described the shelling as an “intense and focused ... certainly sustained” attack, adding that questions had been raised as to whether satellite tracking devices could have been used to identify the journalists’ communications equipment.
“The [tracking] technology is readily available ... on the commercial market,” he said. “It would certainly be within the capabilities of the Syrians.”
Rupert Murdoch, whose U.S.-based News Corporation owns the Sunday Times, emailed staff Wednesday, saying: “We are doing all we can in the face of shelling and sniper fire to get him [Conroy] to safety and to recover Marie’s body.”
Tributes poured in worldwide for the two killed Thursday. Journalists in Libya’s Tripoli, where Colvin had interviewed Moammar Gadhafi before his capture and death, and in London, held wakes.
Colvin, a highly regarded and intrepid reporter for 25 years with the Sunday Times, had described the conflict in Syria a night earlier as one of the worst she had ever seen.
Posting on a journalists’ forum Tuesday, she offered to break the Sunday Times paywall to circulate her final dispatch, describing harrowing scenes inside Homs.
“If anyone can figure out how to climb over Sunday Times paywall (I can barely do it myself) please post ... my Baba Amr, Homs story in February 19 issue. I will face the firing squad for you. I’m still in Baba Amr, technically challenged. I don’t often do this but it is sickening what is happening here,” she wrote.
The Sunday Times lifted the paywall on Colvin’s final story in her honor Wednesday.