BEIRUT — The United Nations gave a grim new count Wednesday of the human cost of Syria's civil war, saying the death toll has exceeded 60,000 in 21 months — far higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists.
The day's events illustrated the escalating violence that has made recent months the deadliest of the conflict: As rebels pressed a strategy of attacking airports and pushing the fight closer to President Bashar Assad's stronghold in Damascus, the government responded with deadly airstrikes on restive areas around the capital.
A missile from a fighter jet hit a gas station in the suburb of Mleiha, killing or wounding dozens of people who were trapped in burning piles of debris, activists said.
Gruesome online video showed incinerated victims — one still sitting astride a motorcycle — or bodies torn apart.
"He's burning! The guy is burning!" an off-camera voice screamed in one video over a flaming corpse.
It was unclear if the government had a military strategy for attacking the gas station. At least one of the wounded wore a military-style vest often used by rebel fighters. Human rights groups and anti-regime activists say Assad's forces often make little effort to avoid civilian casualties when bombing rebel areas.
Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change but has evolved into a full-scale civil war.
As the rebels have grown more organized and effective, seizing territory in the north and establishing footholds around Damascus, the government has stepped up its use of airpower, launching daily airstrikes. The escalating violence has sent the death toll soaring.
The U.N.'s new count of more than 60,000 deaths since the start of the conflict is a third higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists. One group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says more than 45,000 people have been killed. Other groups have given similar tolls.