Syria death toll over 7,500 - UN


Syrian forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since a revolt against president Bashar al-Assad began, a UN official said today, and Hillary Clinton, the top US diplomat, suggested the Syrian leader may be a war criminal.

The military again bombarded opposition strongholds, killing at least 25 people, Syrian activists said, though a wounded British news photographer managed to escape from the besieged city of Homs.

"There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children," UN under-secretary-general for political affairs Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council.

"The total killed so far is certainly well over 7,500 people."

Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorist groups" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

As world dismay mounted over the bloodshed, France said the security council was working on a Syria resolution and urged Russia and China not to veto it, as they have previous drafts.

US secretary of state Clinton told the US Senate it could be argued that Dr Assad is a war criminal, but said using such labels "limits options to persuade leaders to step down from power".

French foreign minister Alain Juppe had said it was time to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Dr Assad that he would face justice.

However, Tunisia, where a revolt toppled a president last year, would be willing to offer Dr Assad asylum if this would help stop the bloodshed, a senior Tunisian official said.

Mr Juppe told the French parliament that work had begun at the security council on a resolution that "could order an immediate halt to the hostilities and (allow) humanitarian access while also renewing support for the Arab League plan".

"I solemnly call on Russia and China not to block this security council resolution," he said.

Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution on February 4th that would have backed an Arab League call for Dr Assad to step down.

UK foreign secretary William Hague said he had discussed the situation with former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, now the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria.

"He is charged with promoting a political solution and I hope he will bring his persuasive powers to bear on Russia and China as well," he said in response to questions in parliament.

Russia's foreign ministry said the US ambassador to Moscow had discussed Syria's "acute humanitarian issues" with a Russian deputy foreign minister today - an indication they may have explored a potential UN security council resolution.

The Cairo-based Arab League will host an international conference to coordinate humanitarian aid to Syria on March 4th, Laila Nagm, a League official, told Reuters.

Dr Assad, projecting an aura of normality in a land ravaged by conflict over his right to power, promulgated a new constitution today after officials said nearly 90 per cent of voters had endorsed it in a referendum two days earlier.

Opposition groups and Western leaders seeking Dr Assad's removal denounced the vote as a charade. Dr Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Russia repeated its calls for Western and Arab nations to press armed opponents of Dr Assad to stop fighting.

"Thanks to our work with the Syrian authorities, it was possible to lead them to interact with international humanitarian organisations, but we are not seeing similar signals addressed to the militants," Interfax news agency quoted deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov as saying in Geneva.

Trying to "instil democracy through force is doomed to disaster", Mr Gatilov to the UN rights forum in a swipe at Western interventions, notably in neighbouring Iraq.

Syria's UN ambassador in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, stormed out of the session after calling on countries to stop "inciting sectarianism and providing arms" to Syrian rebels.

He said foreign sanctions were preventing Damascus from buying medicines and fuel.

The European Union imposed additional punitive measures today.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

Foreign powers have argued over whether to arm Syrian rebels, but there is little appetite in the West for any Libya-style military intervention. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have advocated sending weapons to anti-Assad insurgents.

Dr Assad says he is battling a foreign conspiracy featuring "armed terrorist groups" and al-Qaeda militants. His opponents scorn his calls for dialogue as meaningless while Syrian security forces are violently repressing dissent.