6,000 Syrians killed in March, deadliest month yet

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 3:04 p.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, March 13, 2013 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian doctors treat a man who was wounded at the scene where two mortar rounds exploded near an orphanage, at al-Boukhtyar area, in Damascus, Syria.

SANA, File, Associated Press

BEIRUT — March was the bloodiest month yet in Syria's 2-year-old conflict with more than 6,000 documented deaths, a leading anti-regime activist group said Monday, blaming the increase on heavier shelling and more violent clashes.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the increased toll is likely incomplete because both the Syrian army and the rebel groups fighting the government often underreport their dead in the civil war.

"Both sides are hiding information," Abdul-Rahman said by phone from Britain, where his group is based. "It is very difficult to get correct info on the fighters because they don't want the information to hurt morale."

The numbers, while provided by only one group, support the appraisal of the conflict offered by many Syria watchers: The civil war is largely a military stalemate that is destroying the country's social fabric and taking a huge toll on civilians.

The increase also reflects the continuing spread of major hostilities to new parts of Syria. While clashes continue in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, Syria's three largest cities, rebels have launched an offensive in recent weeks to seize towns and army bases in the southern province of Daraa, largely with the help of an influx of foreign-funded weapons.

The Observatory, which works through a network of contacts in Syria, said those killed in March included similar numbers of combatants on both sides: 1,486 rebels and army defectors and 1,464 soldiers from the Syrian army.

But the number of civilians killed exceeded them both: 2,080 total for the month, including 298 children and 291 women.

In addition, there were 387 unidentified civilians and 588 unidentified fighters, most of them foreigners fighting with the rebels, bringing the March total to 6,005, Abdul-Rahman said.

He criticized the international community for not doing more to stop the bloodshed, which he said could increase.

"If there is no solution, we think the numbers will get worse in the coming months," he said.

The March toll surpassed what had previously been the deadliest month, August 2012, when airstrikes, clashes and shelling killed more than 5,400 people, Abdul-Rahman said.

His total death toll for the conflict through the end of March was 62,554, a number he acknowledged as incomplete, suggesting the true figure could be twice as high.

Besides the underreporting of dead fighters by both sides, he mentioned the tens of thousands of missing persons and captives held by the regime and the rebels. The fate of these people is rarely uncovered, he said.

He also said more than 12,000 pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha," along with government informers may have been killed by the opposition and never reported.

The constant stream of new reports, in addition to the lack of free access to much of the country, makes full investigations impossible.

"Since there are more dying every day, it is very hard to go back and document those who died before," Abdul-Rahman said, calling for an independent international investigation inside Syria.

The Observatory's numbers are not as high as those given by the United Nations.

On Feb. 18, a U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a 131-page report saying about 70,000 people had been killed in the conflict. The report compiled and corroborated death reports from a number of different sources.

The U.N. has not updated its number since.

The Syrian government does not provide regular death tolls for the conflict. Syrian officials did not immediately comment on the reported death toll.

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