BEIRUT/AMMAN/GENEVA: More than 60,000 people have now died in Syria’s uprising and civil war, the United Nations said Wednesday, dramatically raising the death toll in a struggle that shows no sign of ending.
In the latest violence, dozens were killed in a rebellious Damascus suburb when a government airstrike turned a gas station into an inferno, incinerating drivers who had rushed there for a rare chance to fill their tanks, activists said.
“I counted at least 30 bodies. They were either burnt or dismembered,” said Abu Saeed, an activist who arrived in the area an hour after the 1 p.m. raid in Muleiha, a suburb on the eastern edge of the capital.
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said in Geneva researchers cross-referencing seven sources over five months of analysis had listed 59,648 people killed in Syria between March 15, 2011, and Nov. 30, 2012.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected and is truly shocking,” she said. “Given that there has been no letup in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013.”
There was no breakdown by ethnicity or information about whether the dead were rebels, soldiers or civilians. There was also no estimate of an upper limit of the possible toll.
The analysis – which Pillay stressed is “a work in progress, not a final product” – shows a steady increase in the average number of documented deaths per month since the beginning of the conflict, from around 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to an average of over 5,000 per month since July 2012.
The greatest number of reported killings have occurred in Homs (12,560), rural Damascus (10,862) and Idlib (7,686), followed by Aleppo (6,188), Deraa (6,034) and Hama (5,080).
“This massive loss of life could have been avoided if the Syrian government had chosen to take a different path than one of ruthless suppression of what were initially peaceful and legitimate protests by unarmed civilians,” Pillay said.
“As the situation has continued to degenerate, increasing numbers have also been killed by anti-government armed groups, and there has been a proliferation of serious crimes including war crimes, and – most probably – crimes against humanity, by both sides.” The real death toll is likely to be even greater because reports containing incomplete information were excluded and a significant number of killings may not have been documented at all by the sources available.
“There are many names not on the list for people who were quietly shot in the woods,” Pillay’s spokesman Rupert Colville told the Associated Press.
Previously, the opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the toll at around 45,000 confirmed dead but said the real number was likely to be higher.
Muleiha, the target of Wednesday’s reported airstrike, is a residential and industrial area in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus that also houses a Syrian air defense base.
Video footage taken by activists showed the body of a man in a helmet still perched on a motorcycle amid flames engulfing the scene. Another man was shown carrying a dismembered body.
The video could not be verified. The government bars access to the Damascus area to most international media.
The activists said rockets were fired from the base at the petrol station and a nearby residential area after the air raid.
It was not immediately clear if the bomb blasts caused the storage tanks to explode, but the scene was engulfed in fire, which suggests that was the case.
“MIG warplane strikes on eastern Ghuta! Dozens of martyrs!” a man in the video shouted out as he and a fellow cameraman raced toward plumes of smoke to survey the damage.
The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, estimated that at least 50 people were killed and dozens of others wounded.
It said the toll was likely to rise because bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, adding that “it is extremely difficult to count the dead because most of the bodies have been immolated.”
In Damascus, President Bashar Assad’s forces fired artillery and mortars at the eastern districts of Douma, Harasta, Irbin and Zamlaka, where rebels are active, activists living there said.
Government forces control the center of the capital, while opposition rebels and their sympathizers hold a ring of southern and eastern suburbs that are often hit from the air.
The Observatory said a separate airstrike killed 12 members of a family, most of them children, in Moadamiyeh, a southwestern district near the center of Damascus where rebels have fought for a foothold.
The conflict began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule and turned into an armed revolt after months of government repression.
Insurgents trying to topple Assad see his air power as their main threat. They hold swathes of eastern and northern provinces, as well as some outlying parts of Damascus, but have been unable to protect their territory from relentless attack by helicopters and jets.
In the north, rebels, some from Islamist units, attacked the Afis military airport near Taftanaz air base, firing machine guns and mortars at helicopters on the ground to try and make a dent in Assad’s air might, the Observatory said.
The Islamist group, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham Brigade and other units in northwestern Idlib province were attacking the base, which is near the main north-south highway linking Damascus to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, the Observatory said.
In recent months, rebel units have besieged military bases, especially along the highway, Syria’s main artery.
The assault came after authorities announced the temporary closure of the international airport in Aleppo Tuesday, following several days of attacks there by the insurgents.
The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdelrahman, said the attack was the latest of several attempts to capture the base.
A satellite image of the airport shows more than 40 helicopter landing pads, a runway and aircraft hangars.
Syrian state media gave no immediate account of the Damascus airstrikes or the fighting in the north.