Two award-winning journalists — prominent American war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik — were killed Wednesday by Syrian shelling of the opposition stronghold Homs.
The attack, which killed a total of at least 13 people, came as President Bashar Assad's regime escalated its attacks on rebel bases by using helicopter gunships, activists said.
Weeks of withering barrages on the central city of Homs have failed to drive out opposition factions that include rebel soldiers who fled Assad's forces.
Hundreds have died in the siege and the latest deaths further galvanized international pressure on Assad, who appears intent on widening his military crackdowns despite the risk of pushing Syria toward full-scale civil war.
A witness contacted by Reuters from Amman said shells hit a house in the Baba Amr district of Homs in which Colvin, who worked for the U.K.'s Sunday Times newspaper, Ochlik and other journalists were staying and a rocket hit them when they tried to escape.
Syrian activists said French reporter Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and British photographer Paul Conroy, also of The Sunday Times, were wounded in Wednesday's shelling. Bouvier was said to be in serious condition.
Injured need 'urgent' help
Activist Abu Thaer said a total of four journalists were wounded. There were unconfirmed reports that an American woman was among them.
They were being treated in a makeshift hospital but there was nothing that could be done for them and they needed to be urgently evacuated, according to Thaer. "There is hardly any medical equipment or medicine to treat people," he said on Skype.
A YouTube video from Homs activist Khalied Abu Salah, showed him standing in the rubble next to the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik, on the floor of a grey concrete hallway scarred with bullet marks and cracks from the blasts.
"These are the bodies of the American journalist Marie Colvin and this is the French journalist Remi Ochlik. They are martyrs of the random shelling on the neighborhood of Baba Amro ...," Salah says.
He raises his fist defiantly and calls for urgent aid to treat the wounded in Baba Amro. "I am sending a message to the European Union to move immediately. The blood of your own has mixed with Syrian blood. You need to move now," he shouts.
After the French government confirmed the deaths, President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "That's enough now, the regime must go."
"This tragic incident is another example of the shameless brutality of the Assad regime," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of the journalists killed.
Colvin: 'Snipers all around'
Just a day before, on Tuesday, Colvin, from Oyster Bay, New York, had talked movingly about the attacks on Homs and, in particular, its Baba Amr suburb by Assads forces.
"The Syrians are not allowing civilians to leave. Anyone who gets on the street, if they are not hit by a shell, they are sniped," she told the U.K.'s ITN television news.
"There are snipers all around Baba Amr on the high buildings," Colvin added. "I think the sickening thing is the complete merciless nature ... they are hitting civilian buildings absolutely mercilessly, without caring. The scale of it is just shocking."
Colvin, 57, had worked as a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times for the past two decades. She was instantly recognizable for an eye patch she wore after being injured by shrapnel while covering conflicts in Sri Lanka in 2001.
Colvin said she would not "hang up my flak jacket" even after the eye injury.
"So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night," she wrote in the Sunday Times after the attack. "Equally, I'd rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offense to desk jobs.
Speaking to BBC News Tuesday, Colvin compared the situation in Baba Amr to the massacre of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war in 1995, when Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslims.
She said there were 28,000 living in Baba Amr and "they are here because they can't get out."
Colvin told the BBC that she had counted 14 shells falling on the suburb within 30 seconds early Tuesday morning.
'Marie Colvin is one of the greats'
She spoke about watching a 2-year-old child dying from shrapnel wounds in a makeshift clinic in an apartment, saying it was "absolutely horrific."
"The doctor just said 'I cannot do anything' (for the child). His little tummy just kept heaving until he died," Colvin told the BBC. The child was among a "constant stream" of injured civilians coming to the apartment for treatment, she said.
NBC News' Richard Engel said on his Twitter account as the news was emerging, "Marie Colvin is one of the greats. Been everywhere. Would be a tragic loss."
Ochlik, who ran his own agency, IP3 Press, won a World Press Photo award earlier this month for his work covering the uprising in Libya.
Born in France in 1983, he first covered conflict in Haiti at the age of 20.
Ochlik's website says he had covered the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, presidential elections in Haiti in 2010, and the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt last year in addition to the revolt that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
The New York Times reported that Colvin and Ochlik's deaths follow the killings of several citizen journalists in Syria. One, Rami el Sayed, a well-known videoblogger in Baba Amr, died Tuesday.
The paper said some activists fear the Assad regime is deliberately targeting journalists to stop news of what is happening in Syria from being reported.
"It's too much of a coincidence ... There are reports of planes flying around and they may be looking for the satellite uplinks," The New York Times quoted a Syrian activist in Cairo as saying.
The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in repression by the regime of President Bashar Assad against a popular uprising that began 11 months ago. Syrian activists, however, put the death toll at more than 7,300.
The Syrian military has intensified its attacks on Homs in the past few days, aiming to retake rebel-held neighborhoods that have become powerful symbols of resistance to Assad's rule.
For the government in Damascus, Homs is a critical battleground to maintain its control of Syria's third-largest city and keep more rebel pockets from growing elsewhere.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that Syrian army helicopters fitted with machine guns opened fire on the village of Ifis. Idlib is a main base of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, said troops conducted raids in the Damascus district of Mazzeh district and the suburb Jobar, where dozens of people were detained.
In Jobar, the group said troops broke doors of homes and shops and set up checkpoints.
The first Western journalist to die since the Syrian uprising began, award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, 43, was killed in Homs on Jan. 11.
Syrian authorities have said he was killed in a grenade attack carried out by opposition forces — a claim questioned by the French government, human rights groups and the Syrian opposition.
Last week, New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack in Syria after he sneaked in to cover the conflict.