UN says 93,000 people killed in Syria
By Al-Jazeera Correspondents
DOHA - At least 93,000 people were killed in Syria's conflict by the end of April this year, but the true number could be "potentially much higher", the United Nations human rights office says.The exact figure released on Thursday - 92,901 people - is much higher than the UN's last death toll back in January, of 59,000 people.
"The constant flow of killings continues at shockingly high levels," said Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"This is most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher."
An average of more than 5,000 people have been killed every month since last July, while rural Damascus and Aleppo have recorded the highest tolls since November, the report said in its latest study compiling documented deaths. Among the victims were at least 6,561 children, including 1,729 children younger than 10.
Al Jazeera's diplomatic editor James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, described the figures as "staggering".
The UN has not had much access to Syria, and therefore has been unable to count bodies. Instead, it carried out a statistical survey.
"They have gone through sources which had the names, dates and locations (of those killed)," our correspondent said, adding that the UN acknowledges it has "underreported the number of deaths".
Rebel-led mass killing
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels reportedly killed at least 60 people, including civilian government loyalists, in a battle in Halta, a Sunni-majority village in the country's east, activists said. The fighting over the past few days targeted members of the Shi'ite community, highlighting the increasingly sectarian nature of the country's civil war.
The opposition fighters reportedly stormed and burned civilian homes in the village in the eastern Deir Azzor province. The attack is said to be in retaliation for an earlier assault by Shi'ites from Hatla that killed four opposition fighters. A Syrian government official denounced the attack on the Shi'ite-section of the Sunni-majority Hatla village as a "massacre" of civilians, the Associated Press news agency reported on Thursday.
A video posted online by rebels on Tuesday, entitled "The storming and cleansing of Hatla", showed dozens of fighters carrying black flags celebrating and firing guns in the streets of a small town as smoke curled above several buildings.
Most armed rebels in Syria are from the country's Sunni majority, while President Bashar al-Assad has retained core support among the minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, along with Christians and Shi'ites.
US debates strategy
The alleged massacre came as the US again debated how to help the Syrian opposition. Addressing reporters with his British counterpart William Hague in Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that a political solution that would end the war and save Syria was still being sought.
The US has weighed for months whether to give arms to the rebels, but the issue is now firmly on the table given increased involvement by Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese Shia group, and as Iran backs President Assad on the battlefield.
"We are focusing our efforts now on doing all that we can to support the opposition as they work to change the balance on the ground," Kerry said at the joint news conference.
Kerry's comments came as regime forces were reported to be preparing for a major offensive on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo.
The Obama administration is meeting this week on whether to arm the Syrian rebels, a topic that Kerry said he discussed with Hague. The meetings come ahead of a G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week. G8 leaders are expected to discuss a coordinated response to the Syrian conflict, and how to bring the rival sides together at a peace conference.
For his part, Hague said Britain, the US and allies in Europe and the region - a group known as the London 11 that has met in Turkish and Jordanian cities - may need to step up their efforts to help the opposition.
Also on Wednesday, trouble flared on Syria's borders, with Lebanese police saying that a Syrian helicopter fired rockets on Arsaal, a village in the country's east, wounding at least two people.