BEIRUT - The death toll from the eight-month Syrian uprising has reached 3,500, the U.N. said Tuesday, as activists on the ground reported that fresh attacks by Syrian troops killed two people in a rebellious central city where the military has struggled to consolidate control.
The toll provided by the U.N. human rights office is based on figures gathered outside the country, and includes dozens killed since the brokering of a peace plan by the Arab League last week and during a major Muslim holiday on Sunday.
After the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted in mid-March, inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, but amateur videos posted online and details gathered by activist groups have been filtering out.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva that "more than 60 people are reported to have been killed by Syrian security forces since Syria signed the peace plan" sponsored by the Arab League. She said the latest tally also includes 19 killed on Sunday during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, also known as the Feast of Sacrifice.
The U.N. figures are conservative and based on "credible sources on the ground" though the agency itself has no one posted in the country, Shamdasani said.
As the U.N. tally came out, Syrian activist Salim al-Homsi, based in the rebellious central city of Homs, said a man and a woman were killed by security forces' fire Tuesday morning in the city's neighbourhood of Baba Amr.
Violence in Homs has spiraled out of government control with the presence of anti-regime military defectors resisting a weeklong government offensive.
Al-Homsi said troops control large sections of the district after the defectors pulled out, but security forces were still conducting raids and operations in other areas. Electricity, water and phone lines to Baba Amr have been cut for a week.
"They think they can control Baba Amr like they did other areas but they are wrong, we are not afraid of them," he told The Associated Press by phone. "We will keep protesting."
The regime is scrambling to clear out Baba Amr, a major centre of resistance and reprisal, as Damascus faces potential fallout from the Arab League for defying a peace plan brokered by the 22-nation body with persistent violence.
According to activists, more than 110 people have been reported killed in the past week in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, including more than 40 from Baba Amr. Syrian activists and rights groups often give conflicting casualty figures, and the discrepancy in the death toll with the U.N. figures could not be immediately reconciled.
The government reportedly has been facing strong resistance from army defectors who have taken refuge in the Baba Amr and surrounding areas in Homs, which has a population of some 800,000 and is some 100 miles (160 kilometres) north of the capital, Damascus.
An amateur video posted online Tuesday showed a small group of alleged defectors from the group known as the Syrian Free army driving through Baba Amr on Monday with automatic rifles and shoulder-carried RPGs.
"We are here to protect the peaceful, unarmed protesters in Baba Amr," said a soldier who identified himself as a member of the Al-Farouk brigade. "We will teach them a hard lesson," he said, referring to the military offensive.
A key opposition group, the Syrian National Council, declared Homs a "disaster area" on Monday and appealed for international intervention to protect civilians and for sending Arab and international observers to oversee the situation on the ground.
Al-Homsi said humanitarian conditions have become unbearable. "There are mountains of garbage everywhere, nobody has picked it up in more than three weeks," he said. "It is difficult to bring in medical equipment, bread and heating fuel. There is a shortage of everything," he said.
Despite increasing international pressure, Assad still has a firm grip on power and has shown no signs of moving to stop the crackdown on the uprising, blaming the bloodshed on "armed gangs" and extremists acting out a foreign agenda to destabilize the regime.
Heilprin reported from Geneva.