BEIRUT – The United Nations gave a grim new count Wednesday of the human cost of Syria’s civil war, saying the death toll has exceeded 60,000 in 21 months – far higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists.
The day’s events illustrated the escalating violence that has made recent months the deadliest of the conflict: As rebels pressed a strategy of attacking airports and pushing the fight closer to President Bashar Assad’s stronghold in Damascus, the government responded with deadly airstrikes on restive areas around the capital.
A missile from a fighter jet hit a gas station in the suburb of Mleiha, killing or wounding dozens of people who were trapped in burning piles of debris, activists said.
Gruesome online video showed incinerated victims – one still sitting astride a motorcycle – or bodies torn apart.
It was unclear if the government had a military strategy for attacking the gas station. Human rights groups and anti-regime activists say Assad’s forces often make little effort to avoid civilian casualties when bombing rebel areas.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change but has evolved into a full-scale civil war.
As the rebels have grown more organized and effective, seizing territory in the north and establishing footholds around Damascus, the government has stepped up its use of airpower, launching daily airstrikes. The escalating violence has sent the death toll soaring.
The U.N.’s new count of more than 60,000 deaths since the start of the conflict is a third higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists. One group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says more than 45,000 people have been killed. Other groups have given similar tolls.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
She criticized the government for inflaming the conflict by cracking down on peaceful protests and said rebel groups, too, have killed unjustifiably. Acts by both sides could be considered war crimes, she said.
She also faulted world powers for not finding a way to stop the violence.
“The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting shames us all,” Pillay said.
The new death toll was compiled by independent experts commissioned by the U.N. human rights office.