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Jan 2, 2013 1:09 PM by CNN News

U.N.'s Syria death toll jumps dramatically to 60,000 plus

(CNN) -- The death toll in devastated Syria has surpassed an estimated 60,000 people, the United Nations said Wednesday, a dramatic figure that could skyrocket as the civil war persists.

The toll brings to mind similar numbers -- the population of Terre Haute, Indiana, or Cheyenne, Wyoming; the capacity of Dodger Stadium; or the 50,000-plus U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam.

The figure is about 15,000 higher than the toll CNN had cited from a collection of sources.

It's "truly shocking" and shameful, said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who blamed the international community for inaction.

"Collectively we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns," she said. "While many details remain unclear, there can be no justification for the massive scale of the killing highlighted by this analysis," she said.

Inside Syria, anti-government activists brought their personal perspective to the new death estimate: "No wonder!" Hama activist Mousab Alhamadee said. "We live on the ground and we see the massacres daily."

Western and Arab nations have denounced Bashar al-Assad's regime, and they have been been reluctant or unable to stop the warfare.

They haven't been able to forge tough action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council because of opposition from Russia and China. While some countries have passed along weapons to the rebels, the world community has avoided being drawn into a war and risk a bloody quagmire, like the Vietnam War for the United States or the Afghan war for the Russians.

Echoing the fears of U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Pillay predicted more deaths, "Unless there is a quick resolution to the conflict."

"I fear thousands more will die or suffer terrible injuries as a result of those who harbor the obstinate belief that something can be achieved by more bloodshed, more torture and more mindless destruction," she said.

Pillay said the number of deaths is higher than expected.

"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," she 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 60,000, she said, "is likely to be an underestimate of the actual number of deaths." Citing the discovery of mass graves in newly liberated government bases, Alhamadee, the activist, said: "The number I think is far greater than this, and lots of people are missing."

"The recording and collection of accurate and reliable data has grown increasingly challenging due to the conflict raging in many parts of the country," Pillay said.

Rupert Colville, a U.N. spokesman, agrees that the number "is probably a minimum" and reflects a killing field of war crimes.

"There's not a shadow of doubt now that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed. That said, in each individual case, the final judgment has to be made by a court. It's hard to quantify at this point," he said.

"This is a classic case of a conflict that's spiraling downwards, becoming ever more ghastly. We've seen this before in the Balkans and other places. The worse it becomes, the more difficult it is to resolve."

"Once there is peace in Syria, further investigations will be necessary to discover precisely how many people have died, and in what circumstances, and who was responsible for all the crimes that have been committed."

Air attacks, shelling, tank fire, bomb attacks, street-to-street fighting and sectarian fighting have all contributed to the rising toll, Pillay said. Deaths have increased from 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to more than 5,000 per month since July, she said.

Death has been most prevalent in Homs, the Damascus outskirts, Idlib, Aleppo, Daraa and Hama. More than three-quarters of the victims are male, and 7.5% are female, Pillay said. The gender of the others isn't clear, and analysts couldn't "differentiate clearly between combatants and non-combatants."

The inability of the U.N. Security Council and the international community to stop the violence "shames us all," she said.

"We have been repeatedly asked: 'Where is the international community? Why aren't you acting to stop this slaughter?' We have no satisfactory answer to those questions," she said.

There must be plans to stave off instability after the conflict ends, she said. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced problems because the transition from dictatorship to democracy "was given insufficient support," she said.

Death estimates have varied among opposition groups that have issued daily counts. For example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 46,000 people have died since March 2011.

U.N. data specialists counted 59,648 people reported killed in Syria between March 15, 2011, and November 30, 2012, Pillay said. Scores of deaths were reported every day in December.

Syrian air power

Syrian government warplanes hammered the Damascus suburbs and other targets Wednesday and left dozens dead in an airstrike on a fuel station.

The fighting raged as al-Assad's government worked to ramp up its air attacks and rebels targeted air bases.

At least 74 people died and dozens were wounded in the Damascus suburb of Mleiha in the fuel station air raid, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said, citing initial reports.

The toll of "martyrs" will probably rise "due to continuous pulling of the bodies from under the rubble," the LCC said.

The victims were among 151 people killed in the country Wednesday, most of whom died in Damascus and its suburbs.

Aerial shelling was reported in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, in the cities of Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and other locations.

Rebels fight for an air base

In Idlib province, Syrian rebels, including jihadists, fought to wrest a key military air base from government forces Wednesday, the opposition said, as anti-regime fighters kept up the heat on al-Assad's forces.

Al-Nusra Front, a militant group that the United States designated last month as a terrorist movement, is among three rebel factions attacking the Taftanaz military air base, rebels said in a statement.

"The battle to liberate Taftanaz military airport has started," the rebels said. "Taftanaz airport has been delivering horrors to Muslims. The warplanes fly from there on a daily basis, to throw explosive barrels on villages and towns."

The other factions are Battalions of Ahrar Al-shaam and the Islamic Forefront. Ahrar is an Islamist coalition with some Salafist elements that cooperates with the Free Syrian Army. The Islamic Forefront is a larger umbrella group of Islamist organizations; one of its members is Ahrar.

About 400 soldiers are based at the airport, along with a number of pro-government militia members.

At the base are 30 planes, including transportation craft and fighting jets; seven armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers; artillery and rocket launchers.

Casualties have been reported on both sides in the fighting, but precise numbers were not available.

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