x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Death toll in Syria reaches 2,600 says UN

Gulf Cooperation Council demands halt to 'killing machine' and 'the immediate implementation of serious reforms that meet the aspirations' of the Syrian people.

Demonstrators in Maaret Harma village, Edlib province, Syria hold portraits of relatives  killed in recent violence, as they march during a demonstration against the Syrian regime. AP Photo /Shaam News Network
Demonstrators in Maaret Harma village, Edlib province, Syria hold portraits of relatives killed in recent violence, as they march during a demonstration against the Syrian regime. AP Photo /Shaam News Network

DAMASCUS // The death toll in Syria after six months of protests has reached 2,600, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said yesterday.

Navi Pillay, the UN human-rights chief, said the situation had "worsened" and was "dire", with growing numbers of peaceful protesters being killed by security forces.

She also said the Syrian authorities had refused to give unfettered access to UN human-rights assessment teams, despite repeated official requests.

"My last figures were 2,000 killed and now I am shocked to learned that the figure is closer to 2,600," she said in a speech to the UN human-rights council in Geneva.

Her remarks echoed growing international condemnation of Syria's suppression of anti-regime demonstrations, with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Sunday demanding the "killing machine" be halted.

In addition, the group of six Arab states called for "the immediate implementation of serious reforms that meet the aspirations" of the Syrian people.

The UN's revised casualty tally, based on what Ms Pillay called reliable sources, was immediately dismissed by Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior aide to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

On a visit to Moscow, where she yesterday held talks with Mikhail Margelov, Russia's presidential envoy to the Middle East, Ms Shaaban said 1,400 people had died since March, half of them security personnel.

The other 700 killed were "insurgents" she said, in line with the regime's insistence it was fighting a revolt by armed Islamic militants, not facing a largely peaceful uprising calling for an end to decades of autocracy, corruption and monopoly of power by unaccountable security services.

Pro-democracy activists inside Syria said they believed the United Nations figure to be lower than the actual number of dead.

"There are thousands of people missing who are completely unaccounted for and we know that security forces are withholding corpses from families, so the actual number of dead will be higher than those who can be 100 per cent confirmed," said one dissident.

Among those known to have been killed is Ghiyath Matar, a human-rights activist from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. His corpse, showing signs of torture, was returned to his family on Saturday, four days after his arrest by security forces. Human-rights groups say he is one of scores of detainees to have died under torture during the uprising.

Another five people were killed yesterday, according to activists in Syria, with military and security force units sweeping through villages near the ancient city of Aphamea, once a popular tourist destination.

France accused Syria of perpetrating an "endless sequence of crimes" and criticised the UN Security Council for not doing more to exert pressure on Damascus.

However Russia, a key ally to Syria and permanent Security Council member, indicated it would continue to stand by Mr Al Assad, who has promised to make political reforms in tandem with security operations in protest areas.

After holding talks in Moscow with the British prime minister, David Cameron, on the situation in Syria, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would not support a proposed Security Council resolution, backed by the United States and Europe, to impose an arms embargo and other economic sanctions on Damascus.

"Russia proceeds from the assumption that it's necessary to approve a resolution on Syria that will be tough, but well balanced at the same time that would address both parties to the conflict - President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition," Mr Medvedev said. "Only in that case could it be successful."

Moscow's stance has drawn praise from the Syrian authorities, with banners raised in Damascus thanking Russia for its "fidelity" and friendship. But, in giving Mr Al Assad diplomatic cover on the international stage, the Kremlin has served to deepen the crisis, according to a former official in the Syrian regime.

"Russia's silence has emboldened the [Syrian] authorities to push their military solution to the uprising," the former official said, on condition of anonymity. "Assad see's he has a green light from Moscow to keep on with his crackdown.

"If the Russians had made it clear early on that the killing of civilians wasn't acceptable, we would not be in this terrible position now."

Despite on-going military operations, relentless protests and a dramatically slowing economy - Switzerland announced yesterday that US$51 million in Syrian assets have now been frozen under sanctions - Syrian officials continue to insist the country has overcome the worst of the crisis and is returning to normal.

To that effect, state-run media yesterday covered Mr Al Assad's inauguration of a new road project, designed to link northern and southern suburbs of Damascus.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, also reported on continued national dialogue consultations, ostensibly to map out a path to democracy. Opposition groups boycotted the event, saying talks with the regime cannot take place until security forces stop using live ammunition against protesters and 15,000 political prisoners are freed from jail.