Thursday, February 23, 2012

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Wounded journalists in Syria plead for help in YouTube videos

| The Cutline – 

A pair of French journalists wounded in the attack in Homs, Syria that killed Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik posted a pair of YouTube videos Thursday, asking their government for help.
Edith Bouvier, a reporter for the Le Figaro newspaper, and Paul Conroy, a freelance photographer, asked that Bouvier be allowed to leave the city of Homs, where the attack occurred. Other activists who spoke in the video appealed to the French government and Red Cross to evacuate them.
Conroy said they had been injured in the "rocket attack" that killed Colvin and Ochlik, and were being treated by a local medical team. He added that they were not being held captive, but that Bouvier, in particular, was in need of more extensive medical attention.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the attacks, demanding that the Syrian government allow medical aid to reach the wounded journalists, and called for an immediate evacuation of the dead and injured.
The danger for journalists in Syria has escalated in recent weeks.
CPJ, which began monitoring journalists' deaths in 1992, had never recorded the death of a journalist until late last year, when two freelance cameramen were killed in separate incidents in November and December. Five journalists--including Colvin and Ochlik, have been killed there since January.
"The death toll tells the story," Robert Mahoney, CPJ's deputy director, told Yahoo News in a phone interview from Cairo. "It's a classic siege. In certain parts of the city, you have the Syrian army targeting civilians. And for journalists who want to tell that story, they have to live and work among them. You are vulnerable. It's very dangerous for journalists working in those neighborhoods."
Of the seven journalists killed in Syria, six have perished in Homs.
Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who had been with the group in Homs last week, told London's Telegraph that Syrian forces had threatened to kill journalists there.
"A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told: 'If they find you they will kill you,'" Perrin said. "I then left the city with the journalist from the Sunday Times but then she wanted to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place."
Perrin said he was told the Syrian Army "issued orders to 'kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil.'"
Stephen Starr, an Irish freelance journalist, just returned from Syria after living there for more than five years.
"The reason journalists are being killed in Homs is because they are working among insurgents and fighters who are opposing the regime," Starr, a contributor to the Irish Times, Guardian and Washington Post among others, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "The regime thoroughly believes it is locked in a battle against armed gangs (and to some extent, it is). It believes it must wipe out these gangs in order to maintain stability across the country.

"They think, 'If there are journalists there--especially foreign journalists who entered the country illegally--that is their own problem,'" Starr continued. "It's likely the regime saw communications infrastructure on the roof of the building Colvin and others were working from and targeted it as they believed fighters were coordinating with others in Lebanon to get arms into the country."
"There's a news blackout," Mohoney said. "The Syrian government has tried to control the news, selectively allowing foreign journalists in and then monitoring them when they are in."
Last month, even that backfired tragically, when a Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist on a government sanctioned tour, was killed in a mortar attack.
In an appearance on CNN just hours before her death, Colvin told Anderson Cooper that threats against civilians by the Syrian government were becoming serious.
"It's a complete and utter lie they're only going after terrorists," Colvin said. "The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians."
On Thursday, local activist Omar Shakir told the New York Times that the Syrian Army had blocked the road to Homs, preventing aid from reaching the wounded journalists and effectively thwarting any attempted evacuation.
Mahoney noted that Syria is "definitely the most dangerous hotspot to report from now," but cautioned against making broad comparisons. "In Syria, you have a different set of concerns than, say, Afghanistan," he said. "You're not under siege working in Kabul, but you can be killed by a roadside bomb."

Screams haunt Honduran who freed inmates in fire

COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) — The screams haunt convicted murderer Marco Antonio Bonilla, even now as Honduras hails him a hero for saving hundreds of inmates from fire raging through their prison.
The 50-year-old Bonilla, who has a seemingly permanent frown on his face, described with difficulty his role in the Feb. 14 blaze at the Comayagua farm prison that killed 360 inmates, the worst such tragedy in a century. At times his voice cracked.
"They were yelling at me, 'Shorty, Shorty, don't let us die! Open the door!'" Bonilla, who is nicknamed Shorty, told The Associated Press in an interview inside the prison Wednesday. "It's sad to hear your friends crying for help."
Bonilla, who worked as an assistant to the prison's doctor, had for years slept in the infirmary instead of the barracks so he could attend to overnight medical emergencies.
That may have saved him.
He awoke to the screams of prisoners asking for help. He ran outside and saw flames engulfing several barracks. He ran to a prison guard who had keys to the cells.
"I told him we needed to help them, to get them out so they wouldn't die, but he just threw the keys to the ground and left," Bonilla said. "I don't think (the guards) wanted to risk getting burned."
Braving the flames, Bonilla used the keys to open the doors to nine of the 10 barracks. Prisoners broke open the other one using a metal pipe, he said. By the time he got there, however, many people inside had already died.
"It was really difficult because I didn't know which way to turn," Bonilla said. "They were yelling at me from one side, and then from the other."
A witness said Bonilla picked up a bench and broke the lock on one cell.
"If it had been up to me, I would have saved everyone, but unfortunately I wasn't able to," Bonilla said.
When asked how many inmates he saved, he was at first reticent.
"I don't know what to say. There were quite a few; there were many."
When the interviewer insisted on a number, he answered: "About 250, I think."
Rescuers who entered the prison afterward said they were met with the horrific images of burned bodies fused to the prison tin roofing and to cell bars. Prisoners died clutching each other in their cells and in bathrooms.
Bonilla is hopeful that President Porfirio Lobo will make good on his promise to pardon him so he can soon return to his home in the town of San Ignacio, near the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
Lobo said Tuesday that he would pardon Bonilla and asked his ministers to expedite his release from prison. "He put himself at incredible risk trying to save lives during the tragedy," Lobo said.
It is a big turnaround for a man who has been in the Comayagua prison for 17 years, serving sentences for murder and theft. Bonilla said he killed a man to defend his father.
Asked what he would do first if set free, Bonilla said he would go see his 91-year-old dad.
"There are times when one wants nothing more than to be with one's family," he said. "There are times one loves his parents too much and acts the (wrong) way, but there are other times when one regrets what one does."
Despite Lobo's announcement, Honduran law doesn't allow pardons for people convicted for murder or sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Bonilla still has 14 more years on his sentence.
He said he didn't think the fire was set intentionally.
U.S. investigators have concluded it started accidentally, perhaps caused by a lit match, cigarette or some other open flame in the area of bunk beds.
Inmates had clothes, curtains and small electrical devices hung from their tightly packed-together bunks. Some also had materials to light makeshift kitchen stoves, according to some of the survivors. In the part of the prison where the fire started there were 105 prisoners crammed into rows of bunks four levels high. Only four survived.
There were six guards supervising 852 prisoners that night at the prison about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa.
A government report this month said the prison's capacity was 500, and more than half of the 852 inmates crowded inside were awaiting trial. Some had yet to be charged.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa contributed to this report.