Thirteen French officers 'captured by Syrian Army'
By Henry Samuel, Paris, and Amy Willis
The Daily Telegraph
Monday 5 March, 2012
Thirteen French officers have been captured by Syrian forces according to the Lebanon-based The Daily Star newspaper, the first mainstream media outlet to report on rumours of Western troops on the ground.
The French foreign ministry dismissed the report, however, telling The Daily Telegraph that not a single French soldier is on Syrian soil.
But the defence ministry was less categorical, saying it neither confirmed nor denied the claim. A photographer who recently escaped from the besieged Syrian city of Homs also dismissed suggestions French soldiers had intervened to secure his evacuation and that of three other Western reporters.
The report came on Monday as the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reached two neighbourhoods of Homs where they were distributing food and blankets to civilians, including families who had fled the battered district of Baba Amr.
The teams still do not appear to have been allowed into Baba Amr itself.
“We are in the neighbourhoods of al-Inshaat and al-Tawzii. Al-Inshaat is the closest neighbourhood to Baba Amr. Obviously there is the resident population in need of help, as that neighbourhood was also affected by the violence, but it also hosts many families who have fled Baba Amr,” Hicham Hassan, spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
An ICRC convoy carrying food for “several thousand people” and other relief supplies had also arrived in Homs from Damascus, the second in less than a week, he said.
It has also emerged that Syria envoy Kofi Annan will go to Damascus on March 10.
The report claiming that French officers are on the ground came from The Daily Star, a reputable newspaper in Beirut.
The Daily Star cites a Damascus-based Pro-Syrian Palestinian source as alleging that the French troops are being held in a field hospital in Homs.
The source claimed officials in Paris and Damascus are brokering a deal on what to do with the French nationals.
No explanation as to why the French troops had been in Syria was given nor was any indication as to whether they had been part of a larger contingent.
It was not possible to independently verify the claims.
A foreign ministry spokesman in France said: “We deny the idea that there are French troops on the ground”. A defence spokesman said: “We have no information on this. We neither confirm nor deny it".
Damascus has not commented on the presence of French troops on Syrian soil.
However, Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last month it had no intention of intervening in the country as with Libya.
"No, I don’t think so because Syria is also a different society, it is much more complicated ethnically, politically, religiously. That’s why I do believe that a regional solution should be found,” he said.
Homs, 20 miles from the Lebanese border, remains a strategic battleground with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad unrelenting in their bombardment of the area and anti-Assad demonstrators continuing their protests against the tyrannical dictator.
Activists said yesterday at least 12 people, including three children and three women, were killed in shelling in Rastan, a suburb of Homs, on Sunday. Men from another suburb, Baba Amr, were rounded up separately and 10 were lined up against a wall and shot, activists and refugees claimed.
French journalist Edith Bouvier was smuggled out of Syria with three others last week after sustaining a broken leg in what some claimed was a targeted-attack on western reporters.
Marie Colvin, a reporter for The Sunday Times, was killed in the shelling on February 22 alongside French photojournalist Remi Ochlick. They had been working from a makeshift media centre in the neighbourhood when they were hit.
The report did not say whether the French troops were part of the mission to evacuate the reporters, who had been holed up in a safe house for one week following the deadly shelling.
But in an interview this morning with France Info radio, William Daniels, the French photographer who escaped with Edith Bouvier, denied any contact with French forces.
“I never saw any French troops during this operation. We were only with Syrians from the (rebel) Free Syrian Army. We owe our escape to them,” he said.
He added: “We were unable to contact anyone (from the French authorities) for the entire trip as there were no telephone lines, obviously no internet and no satellite telephones, and anyway we wouldn’t have used a satellite phone as it would have allowed (the Syrian army) to locate us.”
Accounts of the escape have only mentioned rebel help, although French Ambassador Eric Chevallier returned to Damascus last week to discuss extracting the journalists safely.
France announced it was closing its embassy on Friday, as assaults continued in the region. Britain has already evacuated its embassy.