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Spanish journalist escapes Syrian city of Homs

As the government reportedly begins a ground assault in the Baba Amr district of the city, El Mundo reporter Javier Espinosa makes it to Lebanon.

March 01, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut — A Spanish journalist escaped to Lebanon on Wednesday after being trapped in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, as opposition activists reported the start of a long-anticipated government ground assault on a rebel enclave there.

Javier Espinosa, a reporter for Spain's El Mundo newspaper, made it to neighboring Lebanon after being spirited out of Homs, according to his newspaper and several other knowledgeable sources. His evacuation followed news a day earlier that a British photographer, Paul Conroy, had also slipped out of Homs and into Lebanon.

But reports from Homs also indicated fierce clashes between armed rebels and Syrian troops said to be advancing on the Baba Amr district, a stronghold of insurgents seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.

The opposition says Baba Amr has been under government mortar and rocket attack for weeks, leaving hundreds of civilians dead. The government says it is fighting terrorists who have been blowing up buildings, killing security personnel and causing havoc in Homs and elsewhere.

The opposition has for weeks been anticipating a ground assault on Baba Amr, where several hundred armed rebels are said to be holed up. Antigovernment activists said the ground offensive began early Wednesday, but the advance stalled amid fierce resistance.

The precise status of the fighting in Baba Amr could not be determined. Few lines of communication were open to Homs. The conflict in Syria has featured skewed and inaccurate accounts from both sides.

An attack in Baba Amr last week struck a makeshift media center, killing two Western journalists: Marie Colvin, a U.S.-born correspondent who was reporting for the Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer.

Four Western journalists, including Espinosa and Conroy, survived the shelling but remained trapped in Baba Amr.

Avaaz, an international activist group that has aided the Syrian opposition, said 13 members of a volunteer rescue team had been killed amid government shelling and sniper fire in a chaotic weekend rescue effort to evacuate the journalists. The Spanish reporter stopped to tend to the wounded, delaying his escape, Avaaz said.

Unaccounted for but still reportedly in Syria are two French journalists, William Daniels and Edith Bouvier, the latter a reporter on assignment for Le Figaro newspaper. Bouvier suffered a fractured leg in last week's shelling and cannot walk. France has called for a cease-fire to evacuate them.

Intense diplomatic negotiations aimed at evacuating the journalists and extracting the bodies of their two dead colleagues have become mired in mutual enmity between the government and the rebels.

An opposition group reported at least 23 people killed in violence across Syria on Wednesday, including 11 in Homs, three in suburban Damascus and three in the southern province of Dara, where the rebellion began in March 2011. The casualty count could not be independently verified because access to Syria is limited.

The almost yearlong rebellion in Syria has resulted in the deaths of at least 7,500 people, according to the United Nations. The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed.

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