UN Rights Chief Urges Cease-Fire as Syria Death Toll Mounts

Posted February 28th, 2012 at 1:50 pm (UTC-5)
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The United Nations human rights chief has called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Syria, as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed dozens more people in attacks on rebellious areas.

Rights groups say government troops killed at least 41 civilians Tuesday throughout Syria, including 20 in an assault on the central protest hub of Helfaya. Opposition sources in the besieged city of Homs told Reuters that tanks from the Syrian army's elite Fourth Division, controlled by Mr. Assad's brother, Maher, had moved onto the streets.

In Geneva, Navi Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council the international community must take action to prevent Syrian troops from continuing to assault civilians. Syria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva walked out of the meeting. Council members are hoping to agree on a text that condemns Syria for its “brutal” use of heavy weapons in residential areas and persecuting opponents.

The United Nations said Tuesday that “well over 7,500 people” have been killed in Syria during the government crackdown, raising its previous estimated death toll by more than 2,000.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council in New York that “credible reports” say the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, “including many women and children.” Syrian officials insist the government is fighting foreign-backed armed “terrorists.”

France said Tuesday the Security Council has begun a draft resolution on the need to immediately halt the violence in Syria and allow in humanitarian aid. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Paris hopes Russia and China will not oppose the measure.

Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly blocked the Council from condemning or punishing Damascus for its deadly crackdown on Syria's 11-month anti-government uprising.

The International Committee of the Red Cross delivered food and other supplies to the cities of Homs and Idlib Tuesday but said better security is needed before the aid can be distributed to needy civilians.

Syrian army defectors safely smuggled wounded British photographer Paul Conroy out of Homs into Lebanon on Tuesday. The global activist group Avaaz, which said it helped organize the operation, reported 13 Syrians were killed during the evacuation – three while trying to help Conroy escape Baba Amr, and 10 others attempting to bring aid into the area.

The French daily Le Figaro told VOA the newspaper's injured reporter, Edith Bouvier, remains in Baba Amr along with two other Western journalists and that their lives are in “serious danger.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy retracted his earlier statement that Bouvier had been evacuated into neighboring Lebanon after suffering multiple leg fractures during a Syrian bombardment of Homs last week that killed two Western journalists.

On the diplomatic front, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki told the French-language daily La Presse he is ready to offer asylum to Mr. Assad and his associates as part of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis.

Syria drew a mixed international response for its referendum Sunday backing a new constitution. The new text allows the creation of a multi-party system and sets a limit of two seven-year terms for future presidents. Syria has been ruled solely by the Baath Party since 1963.

Western leaders and Syria's opposition called the ballot a farce, while Russia and China, two of Syria's few remaining friends, said it was a step toward reform.