By BEN HUBBARD, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — A wounded British photographer who had been trapped in the besieged Syrian city of Homs was spirited safely into Lebanon on Tuesday in a risky journey that killed 13 rebels who helped him escape the relentless shelling and gunfire.
A Syrian diplomat stormed out of an emergency U.N. meeting amid renewed calls for a cease-fire to deliver humanitarian aid. A top human rights official said a U.N. panel's report concluded that members of the Damascus regime were responsible for "crimes against humanity."
The United Nations said the death toll in the 11-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad was well over 7,500, and activists reported more than 250 dead in the past two days alone — mostly from government shelling in Homs and Hama province.
Tunisia's president — the first since the country's own Arab Spring uprising toppled his predecessor — offered the Syrian leader asylum as part of a negotiated peace, an offer Assad will almost surely refuse.
The harrowing ordeal of British photographer Paul Conroy, who was wounded with a French colleague last week by government rockets that killed two others, has drawn focus to the siege of Homs, which has emerged as the center of the anti-Assad uprising.
Hundreds have been killed in the city, parts of which the army has surrounded and shelled daily for more than three weeks. Many have died while venturing outside to forage for food, and activists have posted videos online of homes reduced to rubble and alleyways rendered no-go zones by snipers.
Conroy's escape was the first sign of relief for a group of Western journalists who sneaked into Syria illegally and reached the embattled Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr only to find themselves trapped. Government rockets bombarded the makeshift media center they shared with activists last week, killing two of them and injuring Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier. Conroy and Bouvier later appeared in activist videos lying on makeshift hospital beds, pleading for help.
Conroy crossed the border into neighboring Lebanon after leaving Homs on Sunday evening, according to the global activist group Avaaz, which said it organized the evacuation with local activists.
The group said 35 Syrians volunteered to help get the journalists out and 13 were killed in the operation.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy retracted an earlier statement that Bouvier had also made it to Lebanon. He said he had been "imprecise" due to the complexities of the situation.
"It is not confirmed that Madame Bouvier is today safe in Lebanon," he said.
The journalists believed to still be in the neighborhood are Frenchman William Daniels and Spaniard Javier Espinosa. In addition, the bodies of American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, who were killed last week, are thought to be still in the neighborhood.
Syria's conflict started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by the uprisings that ousted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the street in impoverished hinterlands to call for Assad's downfall. As his troops have used increasing force to try to stop the unrest, the protests have spread, and some demonstrators have taken up arms to protect themselves or attack the regime.
U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe said "well over" 7,500 people have died in Syria's violence and that there are credible reports that more than 100 civilians are dying daily. Activist groups said Monday the death toll for 11 months of unrest has surpassed 8,000.
The new U.N. death toll adds nearly 2,000 dead to last month's toll of 5,400, suggesting an acceleration in the killing.
At a meeting in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the situation in Syria had deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.
She said her office has received reports that Syrian security forces "have launched massive campaigns of arrest."
Pillay cited a U.N. expert panel's report that concluded Syrian government officials were responsible for "crimes against humanity" committed by security forces against opposition members. The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups, too, had committed gross abuses, the report said.