Amman: More than 5,000 people have been killed in nine months of unrest in Syria, the UN human rights chief said, as an insurgency begins to overshadow what had been mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
The latest figure reported to the U.N. Security Council by Navi Pillay is 1,000 higher than the one she announced just 10 days ago. The toll includes civilians, army defectors and those executed for refusing to shoot civilians, but not soldiers and other security personnel killed by opposition forces, she said.
The Syrian government has said more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security services have been killed.
A wave of largely peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule erupted in Syria in mid-March, inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
A violent security crackdown failed to halt the unrest, which has turned bloodier in the last few months as defecting soldiers join armed civilians in fighting back in some areas.
One flashpoint region is the central province of Homs, where an explosion set a gas pipeline on fire on Monday, the second reported pipeline blast in the area in a week. "The fire lit the night sky," said a resident who gave his name as Abu Khalaf.
The explosion occurred near the restive town of Rastan, the scene in late September of one of the first battles between army defectors and security forces. The insurgents have since opted for hit-and-run attacks on patrols and security compounds.
Despite the spiraling violence, the Syrian authorities held local elections on Monday as part of what they say is a reform process, but Assad`s critics described the voting as irrelevant.
Monday was also the second day of the opposition`s "Strike for Dignity," but its success was hard to gauge in some cities where violence has kept many residents in their homes.
Though the strike has found support in protest strongholds around the country, it has not taken hold in central parts of the capital Damascus or the business hub of Aleppo.
Twenty more dead
In Homs, activists said at least four civilians were killed by tank fire on Sunni Muslim districts, where the strike held and voting was largely boycotted.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist organization, said security forces killed another 16 people elsewhere in Syria, including in villages around Homs and in the northwestern province of Idlib on the border with Turkey.
Syria has barred most independent journalists, making it hard to assess conflicting accounts of events there.
In New York, Western envoys on the Security Council said Pillay`s briefing was the most horrifying they had heard in recent times and termed it scandalous that the council, paralyzed by opposition from Russia and China, had taken little action on Syria.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he too was troubled by Pillay`s report but said outside intervention could lead to civil war and a far higher death toll.