Syrian rebels fight for key army base
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels battled regime forces Thursday for control of a key military base in the central Hama province after chasing soldiers out and setting fire to installations there, activists said.
The fighting came as the United Nations released figures that highlighted the carnage that has engulfed Syria for more than two years, saying that almost 93,000 people have been confirmed killed in the conflict.
In a new analysis of the Syrian death toll issued in Geneva, the U.N.'s human rights office acknowledged the real number is likely to be far higher. It documented 92,901 killings between March 2011 and the end of April 2013. But the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, said it was impossible to provide an exact current figure.
The last such analysis, released in January, documented nearly 60,000 killings through the end of November. Since then, U.N. officials had estimated higher numbers.
"The constant flow of killings continues at shockingly high levels, with more than 5,000 killings documented every month since last July," said Pillay. "This is most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher."
Among the victims were at least 6,561 children, including 1,729 children younger than 10.
The figures were released as President Bashar Assad's forces wage an offensive to drive rebels out of central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as the northern province of Aleppo, following a major success in regaining control of the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
Boosted by their battleground victory, regime forces appear set on securing control of the central region, a linchpin area linking Damascus with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast, and Aleppo to the north.
Following dawn battles, rebels fighting to topple Assad took control of the base on the northern edge of the town of Morek, which straddles the country's strategic north-south highway leading to Aleppo.
By midday, regime forces shelled the base and sent reinforcements in an apparent attempt to regain control of the key base, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, which has a vast network of Syrian activists on the ground, said the rebels killed six government fighters and seizing ammunition and weapons. Two rebel fighters were killed.
An amateur video posted on Hama activists' Facebook page showed flames rising from the burning compound and the bodies of some of the killed fighters. In the video, fighters celebrated the capturing of the base, calling it one of the "most critical" regime outposts in the region.
The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's autocratic regime. After a relentless government crackdown on the protests, many Syrians took up arms against the regime, turning the uprising into an armed rebellion that morphed into civil war.
The U.N. said the average monthly number of documented killings has risen from around 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to an average of more than 5,000 per month since last July.
At its height from July to October 2012, the number of killings rose above 6,000 per month.
"Civilians are bearing the brunt of widespread, violent and often indiscriminate attacks which are devastating whole swaths of major towns and cities, as well as outlying villages," Pillay said.
"Government forces are shelling and launching aerial attacks on urban areas day in and day out, and are also using strategic missiles and cluster and thermobaric bombs. Opposition forces have also shelled residential areas, albeit using less fire-power, and there have been multiple bombings resulting in casualties in the heart of cities, especially Damascus."
The most documented killings were in rural Damascus, with 17,800 people dead. Next were Homs, with 16,400; Aleppo, 11,900; and Idlib, 10,300.