British journalist Paul Conroy has been smuggled safely out of Syria to Lebanon – as confusion reigned over the fate of wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier.
The Sunday Times confirmed earlier today that Mr Conroy, 47, was safe and “in good spirits” after being evacuated with the help of activists.
Hours later the French president Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that Ms Bouvier, who was badly wounded, was also safely out of Homs.
But Mr Sarkozy has now retracted that statement, according to the news agency AFP.
Both journalists were hurt in a missile attack that killed the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik.
The reporters were in a building housing a rebel press centre in the district of Babr Amr last week.
Relief over Mr Conroy’s evacuation was tempered by United Nations figures showing “well over 7,500” had been killed in the crackdown – an increase of 2,000.
“There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children,” said UN official Lynn Pascoe.
Those figures came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was plausible to argue that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was a “war criminal”.
There has been continued violence across Syria, including the northern city of Idlib
Mr Conroy was hit by shrapnel in the leg and stomach and had remained trapped in the city by heavy fighting, along with Ms Bouvier, who suffered multiple leg fractures.
In a statement, the Sunday Times confirmed Mr Conroy, from Totnes, Devon, had safely crossed into Lebanon. “He is in good shape and good spirits,” it added.
His wife Kate added: “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.”
A spokesperson for the FCO said Mr Conroy was receiving full consular assistance from the British Embassy.
Earlier, the 47-year-old’s father, Les, said he also had had word from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Amid the good news of Mr Conroy’s escape, however, there has been conflicting reports about Ms Bouvier’s whereabouts.
There was initial joy when Mr Sarkozy made a television statement, telling reporters he was “very happy that the (journalist’s) nightmare had come to an end”.
But about an hour later Mr Sarkozy reportedly retracted the statement.
Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay said any report of Ms Bouvier’s move to Lebanon should be treated cautiously.
He said those who were close to the injured journalist had not seen evidence of her evacuation.
Earlier evacuation plans for the pair had run into problems because of the tense security situation and difficult communications.
Mr Conroy was also reportedly refusing to leave without Ms Colvin’s body, despite being in danger of potentially life-threatening infection if his wounds were not treated.
The freelance photographer, who had been working for the Sunday Times, appealed for help in a video posted on YouTube on February 23.
He said in the video he had sustained “three large wounds” to his leg and was being looked after by Free Syrian Army (FSA) medical staff.
Ramsay, who himself has reported from Homs, said the hope now was to get Mr Conroy home as soon as possible.
“The original hope was that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent would be able to carry out this rescue effort, but that wasn’t able to happen, because I believe the levels of distrust amongst the Free Syrian Army, about who might be coming in, and the Syrian government forces who are still bombing Homs.”
Meanwhile, the delegation from Damascus attending a United Nations debate in Geneva on the human rights situation in Syria has walked out of the meeting.
Syrian representative Faysal Khabbaz said: “We declare our withdrawal from this sterile discussion.”
The French foreign ministry said the UN Security Council was starting work on a new resolution aimed at ending the violence in Syria, adding that it was hoped Russia and China would not oppose it as they did the previous one.
In another development, Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki – in whose country the so-called Arab Spring began a year ago – has said he would be willing to grant Syrian President Bashar al Assad asylum as part of a negotiated settlement.
The situation in Homs is still desperate – the city is in lockdown as the government’s forces continue to attack.
Over the past few days the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have been helping as many civilians as possible, getting some of the injured out and giving as much treatment as they could.
Activists said Homs has suffered some of the heaviest shelling in the three-week assault on the city.
The regime’s security forces were also said to be bombarding the town of Halfaya, north of Homs.
President Assad remains defiant amid all the bloodshed.
He claims his forces are fighting a foreign conspiracy being waged by “armed terrorist groups”.
A referendum on the country’s constitution, which could keep the president in power until 2028, received 89.4% approval from more than eight million voters who cast their ballots on Sunday, according to Syria’s interior ministry.
The UN has said the result was “unlikely to be credible in the context of pervasive violence and mass human rights violations”.
Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, added on Tuesday he was “appalled by the recent escalation of violence” across the country.
“Recent reports indicate that Syrian military and security forces have launched massive campaigns of arrest, arbitrarily detaining thousands of protesters, as well as activists and others suspected of anti-government activities.
“The Syrian army has reportedly used tanks, mortars, rockets and artillery to cordon off cities, and shelled densely populated neighbourhoods in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas.”