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Syria: the Homs rescue - live updates | World news

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Category: World News
Published on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 Written by Super User
Live blog: recap

5.00pm: Here's a summary of events today:

The British photographer Paul Conroy has been smuggled out of Homs in a rescue mission in which a number of Free Syrian Army members were killed. It is unclear whether French journalist Edith Bouvier has been evacuated too; some reports say she has, others that she has not. The French foreign ministry has said it cannot confirm a statement from President Sarkozy that she is safe in Lebanon.

France says the UN security council is starting work today on a new draft resolution to halt the violence in Syria and enable humanitarian access to victims. Meanwhile, the UN human rights council is holding an emergency debate on Syria.

In a newspaper interview to be published tomorrow, Tunisia's president says he is ready to offer asylum to Bashar al-Assad as part of a negotiated solution to end the Syrian conflict.

The Assad regime has sent units of an elite armoured division into Homs as rebel-held districts came under the heaviest bombardment of a three-week-old offensive, opposition sources told Reuters.

4.45pm: Tunisia's president has said he is ready to offer asylum to Bashar al-Assad as part of a negotiated solution to end the Syrian conflict.

President Moncef Marzouki made the offer in an interview with the French-language daily, La Presse de Tunisie, which is due to be published tomorrow. He also said the offer would extend to Assad's associates.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring, was the first country to recall its ambassador from Syria in protest at the violence and it also hosted the international Friends of Syria conference last Friday which called for an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country.

However, the idea of giving refuge to Assad is likely to be controversial among Tunisians. Tunisia's former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia when he was overthrown last year.

4.22pm: More caution on reports about Bouvier's apparent rescue.

Sunday Times journalist Miles Amoore continues to caution against reports that Edith Bouvier has been evacuated, despite the apparent confirmation from President Sarkozy.

The BBC's correspondent in Beirut, Jim Muir, said Lebanese officials could not confirm that she was safe.

At the time of writing, Le Figaro – the paper Bouvier works for – says the French foreign ministry cannot confirm that she is safe.

Hillary Clinton

4.05pm: US secretary of state Hilary Clinton said today that an argument could be made that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal, Reuters reports.

"There would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," Clinton told a Senate committee hearing, responding to a senator's question. But she added that using such labels "limits options to persuade leaders to step down from power".

3.50pm: The UN's political chief, Lynn Pascoe, says "well over" 7,500 people have died in the violence in Syria since the start of the uprising almost a year ago, AP reports.

Pascoe told the security council that he cannot give exact casualty numbers, but says there are "credible" reports that more than 100 civilians are dying in the country daily.

The Violation Document Centre, a website run by activists which aims to record and identify all those killed, claims 8,861 people have been killed.

3.43pm: An activist in Homs said he doubted that remaining journalists trapped in city could be rescued today, because the smuggling route was under attack.

Abo Emad said troops had tried to enter the Baba Amr area from the west today. "The two places [Baba Amr and al-Quosour] are under attack so I can't think they are going to smuggle the reporters," he said.

He was speaking before reports emerged claiming that Nicolas Sarkozy had confirmed French reporter Edith Bouvier had been evacuated.

Emad, who said he was based near the Baba Amr area, said he trusted the Red Crescent (Bouvier twice refused to enter Red Crescent vehicles, according to reports).

"The Red Crescent is basically composed of our people, it is not composed by the regime. It is composed of volunteers who are are friends and brothers," he said.

He added: "Every day is worse than the day before." He claimed the Syrian army's fourth armoured division has been involved in Homs since the start of the assault.

He also confirmed that rebels in the city had access to armoured vehicles, but he added: "You can't fight a tank with an armoured vehicle." He confirmed that a tank had been used in the al-Quosoor area of the city, but he said: "We don't even have five tanks."

Emad described the shock in the city at the discovery of 64 bodies near an army check point on Monday.

"We are shocked at that in the area. How could they do that? The people were trying to get out of the neighbourhood with their families. We still can't believe that. They knew they were from Baba Amr, because it is written on your IDs where you are from. The women and children and old are missing until now."

Emad claimed hundreds of families had managed to escape from the city before the incident.

France's President Sarkozy

3.26pm: A flash from Reuters, citing the French news channel, BFM TV: President Sakozy says Edith Bouvier has been evacuated from Syria and is now safe in Lebanon.

3.06pm: Reports are circulating that French journalist Edith Bouvier has been rescued from Homs and is now in Lebanon. We believe these reports are incorrect.

The ICRC has drawn our attention to a story in Le Monde in which Dr Abdel Rahman Attar, head of Syrian Arab Red Crescent, says his organisation has been unable to speak to Bouvier directly and that she has apparently put certain conditions on her departure.

"We don't know her conditions and we don't know if she genuinely refused [to leave] because we were not able to have direct contact with her," he said.

2.30pm: The International Committee of the Red Cross has repeated its call for a daily ceasefire in Homs, Reuters reports.

It quotes ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan in Geneva as saying:


"We managed to bring relief material into Homs city and Idlib today (Tuesday) which was handed over to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent branches in both cities to be distributed as soon as possible. It needs suitable security conditions.

That is why it is essential to implement our initiative of a humanitarian ceasefire so the assistance can be distributed to all people in need of help."

2.18pm: The Red Cross has been forced to abandoned a planned trip to Homs today because it says the "security situation deteriorated markedly".

Activists say there has been heavy shelling in number of districts, after it emerged that photographer Paul Conroy had been smuggled out of the city.

Samsonhoms, an activist who claims to be based in the city, tweeted:

15:20 here is #Homs :shelling has intensified on the #Inshaat & # BabaAmr regions, bullets are falling like raindrops. Pray for us #Syria

The Local Co-ordination Committee in Syria reported a "powerful explosion" in the Karmam Zaitoun area to the east of the centre.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said: "We had been on our way from Damascus to Homs, but turned back. The ICRC was supposed to be there today but didn't because the security situation deteriorated markedly."

He denied an al-Arabiya report that the Red Crescent had quit Homs in the wake of failed attempts to rescue three of the journalists from the city.

"The local chapter of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent remains in Homs and has been distributing food parcels today," he said.

2.11pm: A tweet from Avaaz says 23 out of 50 activists involved in the operation were killed. (We cannot confirm this information.)

Live blog: recap

1.16pm: Here's a summary of events so far today.

The British photographer Paul Conroy has been smuggled out of Homs in a rescue mission in which several Free Syrian Army members were killed. Three other journalists, Edith Bouvier, Javier Espinosa and William Daniel, remain in the city.

France says the UN security council is starting work today on a new draft resolution to halt the violence in Syria and enable humanitarian access to victims. Meanwhile, the UN human rights council is holding an emergency debate on Syria. The Syrian delegation has walked out of what it called "this sterile discussion".

The Assad regime has sent units of an elite armoured division into Homs as rebel-held districts came under the heaviest bombardment of a three-week-old offensive, opposition sources told Reuters. They said tanks and troops of the Fourth Division, which is commanded by Assad's brother Maher moved overnight into main streets around the besieged southern area of Baba Amro. Meanwhile, video footage has emerged purporting to show rebels in defending different parts of Homs with tanks.

The names of thousands of Syrian dissidents have appeared on an apparent Syrian government hit list obtained by the US news site Mother Jones. Three experts said the 718-page document containing the names and phone numbers of dissidents, was authentic.

The bodies of dozens of men were found dumped on wasteland on the outskirts of Homs on Monday in what appeared to be one of the worst instances of mass killing since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began, the Washington Post reports. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition group, said that the bodies of 64 men were taken to the National Hospital in Homs and that an unknown number of women and children who had been with them are missing.

12.55pm: Reuters is now rowing back on its earlier report that Edith Bouvier has been smuggled out of Homs.

It reports:

Some Syrian opposition activists said Edith Bouvier, a freelance reporter working for French newspaper Le Figaro, who has a broken leg, had also escaped to Lebanon, but there was no immediate confirmation of this.

It has been confirmed that Conroy has escaped to Lebanon.

Wissam Tarrif, a human right campaign with Avaaz, tweets:

The Guardian will have a full report soon on how Conroy was smuggled out of Homs.

12.30pm: The UN security council is to start work today on a new draft resolution to halt the violence in Syria and enable humanitarian access to victims, Reuters reports, citing a French official source:

"Work is starting today at the security council on a proposed resolution on stopping the violence in Syria and on humanitarian access to the worst affected sites and people," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told a news briefing, adding that the focus was on the besieged city of Homs.

"We hope Russia and China will not oppose the proposed resolution," he said. "Given the emergency, it's time that all the council members, without exception, put a stop to this barbarity."

12.21pm: Syria's new constitution is now officially in force following the referendum and a decree issued by President Assad.

The new constitution outlaws torture and says every defendant shall be presumed innocent until convicted in a fair trial. It also says "any person who is arrested must be informed of the reasons for his arrest and his rights, and may not be incarcerated ... except by an order of the competent judicial authority.

As yet, though, the regime does not seem to be changing its ways. This video is said to show arrested citizens of Deraa, in southern Syria, chained together and being loaded into a vehicle yesterday.

11.58am: Russia may soften its position on Syria after its presidential election next week, a senior Lebanese politician has told Reuters.

"The Syrian problem became a domestic issue in Russia. It is part of the election campaign ... [Syrian] blood is being used as a way of trading between Russia and the west," former prime minister Fuad Siniora said, adding that Russia might be "ready to discuss business in a more pragmatic way" after the vote.

Syrian opposition figures expressed a similar view to the Guardian during a visit to London last week.

Siniora also suggested China had balked at UN condemnation of the Assad regime because of concerns about criticism of its own domestic record. But in the long term he said it was not in China's interest to side with the Syrian leader: "They have lots of investments and interests in the Arab world. They cannot continue taking such a position."

11.33am: The Syrian representative has just finished addressing the UN human rights council. He conceded that the humanitarian situation has deteriorated but blames this on "armed groups".

The official, whose name we did not catch, said the UN debate itself is "part of a pre-established plan" to attack the Syrian state and its institutions "under the pretext of humanitarian needs".

He ended by saying that Syria is now withdrawing its delegation "from this sterile discussion".

Meanwhile, the US representative has called on Syria to halt attacks on civilians, withdraw troops to their barracks, release detainees and allow humanitarian access.

11.25am: The activists group the Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria claims the French journalist Edith Bouvier is refusing to leave Homs until the Syrian government guarantees that her photographs and recordings will not be destroyed.

It also reports that Conroy was rescued by the Free Syrian Army, not the Red Crescent.

This cannot be confirmed.

Bouvier is reported to have twice refused to enter Red Crescent ambulances.

Last June Syrian security forces were filmed using Red Crescent vehicles to transport arrested activists.

navi-pillay

11.19am: The UN's human rights chief says the situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and is demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Navi Pillay says her office has received reports that Syrian military and security forces "have launched massive campaigns of arrest" and launched an onslaught against government opponents that has deprived many civilians of food, water and medical supplies.

Pillay told an urgent meeting Tuesday of the UN human rights council that "hundreds of people have reportedly been killed since the start of this latest assault in the beginning of February 2012."

She called on Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access to aid agencies.

Pillay again called for Assad regime to be referred to the international criminal court for alleged crimes against humanity.

11.10am: There is much debate among military aviation buffs about a drone that was filmed in the skies around Damascus earlier this month. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it isn't American (despite reports that the US is operating drones over Syria).

But if it isn't American, whose is it? Some think it could be
an Israeli Heron drone, others that it's an Iranian Ghods Mohajer – possibly obtained by the Assad regime to spy on its own people. Or could it be Turkish?

You can follow the discussion at The Aviationist, Open Source GEOINT and Military Photos.

10.53am: Advisory: the fate of the journalists trapped in Homs remains very unclear.

The Times and Reuters reported that Sunday Times photographer has been smuggled out of Homs.

Other journalists, including Edith Bouvier, appear to be still stranded in Homs. But according to Times journalist Miles Amoore, even Conroy's reported rescue cannot be confirmed.

The campaign group Avaaz claimed Free Syrian Army fighters were killed in the operation to rescue the journalists, but this too has been denied by Amoore.

He adds:

10.33am: Video has emerged purporting to show opposition fighters firing at a government helicopter near Syria's second city of Aleppo.

The incident was filmed in in Anadan, north of the city.

Meanwhile, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, based in Tel Hadya on the outskirts of Aleppo, has sent backups of "almost its entire collection of seeds" for safekeeping in Norway, the Associated Press reports.

The seeds, which include varieties of chickpeas and fava beans, will be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, "sometimes referred to as a doomsday vault [which] is designed to withstand global warming, earthquakes and even nuclear strikes," AP says.

The research centre in Syria has not suffered damage during the uprising but Cary Fowler, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Norwegian vault, told AP: "I think the events unfolding in Syria obviously underline the importance of having safety duplication outside of a country."

10.29am: Despite objections from Iran and Russia, the UN Human Rights Council is due to begin a debate about Syria about now.

The 47-member body, which has no legal force, looks set to back a resolution condemning Syria's "continued widespread and systematic violations". Reuters reports:

Drafted by the Arab countries and Turkey, with strong support from the European Union and United States, the resolution condemns "the use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack residential areas ... that have led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians".

It also voices alarm at the humanitarian crisis in areas lacking food, medicine and fuel and calls for aid agencies to be allowed to deliver vital supplies to civilians in heavily-hit areas, especially Homs, Deraa and Zabadani.

"There will be a wide majority of states in favour. It will pass easily," an Arab diplomat told Reuters ... "We should expect Russia, Cuba and Ecuador to vote against it. On China, [it] is not clear," he added.

10.27am: Paul Conroy's father Les, has confirmed that his son is safe in Lebanon, according to AFP.

It is still only Reuters' opposition sources that claiming that Edith Bouvier is safely out too.

10.13am: The whereabouts of Le Figaro reporter Edith Bouvier remain unclear. Reuters quoted activists as saying that she like Paul Conroy had been smuggled out of Homs to Lebanon. But this has not been confirmed. Guardian sources said she is still in Homs.

The Times also reports that Bouvier is still stranded in the city.

10.02am: As reports emerge about the journalist smuggled out of Homs, Human Rights Watch continues to campaign for two British reporters detained by the Libyan authorities, along with three Libyans who were travelling with them.

The Saraya Swehli militia detained Nicholas Davies-Jones, 32, and Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, 37, on 21 February. The two journalists are freelances working mostly with the Iranian state-owned Press TV.

It is unclear why they were detained. According to the militia, they were driving late at night in Tripoli and taking photographs – which was deemed suspicious, Human Rights Watch says. There are also claims that they did not have proper immigration papers.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW said:


The longer armed groups make arrests and hold prisoners, now including foreign journalists, the harder it becomes to bring these groups under control.

The militias need to get out of the detention business, and the government should re-double its efforts to take control of all militia detention facilities and treat all unauthorised detention as a crime.

10.00am: Diplomats are questioning the Syrian government's claim of a 57% turnout in last Sunday's constitutional referendum. They suggest the actual turnout was around 5%, according to a report by GlobalPost.

The report – compiled with input from a journalist in Damascus who is not named for security reasons – also says multiple voting was easy, since voters only had to produce an ID card or student card, and their fingers were not inked after casting their ballots.

The report continues:


At one polling station in a state-run clinic in Damascus' Midan district, a neighbourhood of traditional Sunni Damascene families and a centre for protests in the capital, the transparent ballot box was still almost empty by late afternoon.

At others, the box was at least opaque and, for the first time in Syria, private voting booths were available, though many of those who did vote did so openly at the desk.

Of the roughly 40 ballots cast in Midan's polling centre, said one of the government employees running it, most had come from employees of the health facility itself.

"All public workers must vote, otherwise they could be penalised by the secret service," said Muhammad Faour of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, describing the result of the referendum as a "foregone conclusion".

9.52am: The International Committee of the Red Cross could not confirm that the journalists Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier had escaped from Homs, as Reuters is reporting.

A spokesman said that if the journalist had been smuggled out, this was a separate operation from a failed ICRC rescue attempt last night.

The BBC reported that Bouvier refused to enter a Red Crescent vehicle last night.

The ICRC spokesman said it would continue to try to rescue wounded people from Homs.

Injured French journalist Edith Bouvier

9.42am: French journalist Edith Bouvier is also safe in Lebanon, according to Syrian opposition sources, Reuters reports.

Bouvier reportedly refused to leave Homs last night in a Red Crescent ambulance.

9.33am: Paul Conroy's wife Kate has not heard official confirmation that her husband is safe, according to the BBC.

Conroy was last seen in a video appeal last Thursday.

At the time he said:

My name's Paul Conroy. I'm a photographer with the Sunday Times. Today's date is 23 February 2012

I was wounded in a rocket attack yesterday. Three large wounds to my leg. My colleague Marie Colvin was also killed in this same attack.

I am currently being looked after by the Free Syrian Army medical staff who are treating me with the best medical treatment available and it's important to add that I am here as a guest and not captured.

Obviously any assistance that can be given by government agencies would be welcome and we'll work on the same premise on the ground.

Syria: the Homs rescue - live updates | World news Photograph: YouTube/Syrian4allWorld

9.19am: Injured Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy is reported to be "safe and sound" in Lebanon, according to Reuters. A diplomatic source told the agency that he was smuggled out of Homs.

9.08am: Another video from Homs appears to show a tank under the control of Free Syria Army fighters.

The clip was purportedly filmed on Monday and cannot be verified.

Meanwhile the YouTube channel Syria Pioneer continues to document the army's bombardment of the Baba Amr area, now in its 25th day.

8.35am: (all times GMT) Welcome to Middle East Live where Syria remains the main focus.

Here's a roundup of the latest developments:

Syria

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad sent units of an elite armoured division into Homs on Tuesday as rebel-held districts came under the heaviest bombardment of a three-week-old offensive, opposition sources told Reuters. They said tanks and troops of the Fourth Division, which is commanded by Assad's brother Maher moved overnight into main streets around the besieged southern area of Baba Amro. The tanks had "Fourth Division Monsters" painted on them, they said.

Activists video from Homs shows rebels in control of a tank, which appeared to be used to defend a church in the city.

The footage was purportedly filmed on Sunday in the Christian area of Hamdiyeh, north-east of the centre.

The bodies of dozens of men were found dumped on wasteland on the outskirts of Homs on Monday in what appeared to be one of the worst instances of mass killing since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began, the Washington Post reports. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition group, said that the bodies of 64 men were taken to the National Hospital in Homs and that an unknown number of women and children who had been with them are missing.

The names of thousands of Syrian dissidents have appeared on an apparent Syrian government hit list obtained by the US news site Mother Jones.

A 718-page digital document obtained by Mother Jones contains names, phone numbers, neighbourhoods, and alleged activities of thousands of dissidents apparently targeted by the Syrian government. Three experts asked separately by Mother Jones to examine the document—essentially a massive spreadsheet, whose contents are in Arabic—say they believe that it is authentic.

The UN's human rights council is poised to discuss Syria at a special session today in Geneva. Russia said it would not object to holding meeting, but said any written resolution would not be useful to resolving the situation in Syria.

A referendum on a new constitution was approved by close to 90% of voters, the Syrian government claimed as international reaction to its ongoing crackdown intensified, with the European Union announcing fresh sanctions against key regime figures. Activist groups said 124 people had been killed the day after the ballot, which had been hailed as a showpiece of reform in the rigidly controlled state.

Injured French journalist Edith Bouvier

Fresh attempts to evacuate wounded Western journalists to safety from the Syrian city of Homs have failed again after one of the reporters refused for a second time to get into a Red Crescent vehicle, the BBC reports. Edith Bouvier, a reporter with the French daily Le Figaro, apparently would not board the vehicles and other evacuees stayed behind in solidarity.

Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, has urged the international community to provide arms to Syrians rebelling against the Assad regime. "I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves," the prime minister said during a visit to Norway.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen backs calls for the international community to help arm the Free Syrian Army.

I hear the outcry already: Arming Assad's opponents will only exacerbate the fears of Syria's minorities and unite them, ensure greater bloodshed, and undermine diplomatic efforts now being led by Kofi Annan, a gifted and astute peacemaker. It risks turning a proxy war into a proxy conflagration.

There is no policy for Syria at this stage that does not involve significant risk. But the only cease-fire I can see that will not amount to an ephemeral piece of paper is one based on a rough balance of forces. For that, the Free Syrian Army must be armed.

In the end, this course will support, not undermine, Annan's diplomacy and perhaps open the way for the sort of transition outlined by the Arab League. In return, the divided Syrian opposition must provide a firm commitment to respect the rights of minorities. The treatment of minorities — like that of women — is one of the many pivotal tests of the Arab Spring.

Mohammed Zidan, a police defector from Idlib, has been speaking to the Independent's Kim Sengupta. "I feel very worried, guilty. But I have made my choice, I have joined the people."

Iran's crackdown on free speech and civil society has dramatically escalated in the run up to this week's parliamentary elections, according to a new report by Amnesty International. The report documented a wave of recent arrests targeting a range of groups, including lawyers, students, journalists, political activists and their relatives, religious and ethnic minorities, filmmakers, and people with international connections, particularly to media.

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