Rate of killings in Syria peaks in April amid government counteroffensive

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

The pace of killing in Syria’s civil war reached a new high in April, with one human rights group counting an average of 196 deaths daily for the month.

Overall, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 5,889 deaths in April, slightly lower than the 5,896 it tracked in March. But because April has one fewer day than March does, the rate of killing was higher: 196 per day in April versus 190 in March.

More importantly, there was a sharp increase in civilian deaths. Of the deaths recorded in April, half of them _ 2,994 _ were of civilians, 1,677 were rebel fighters and 1,009 belonged to the army. The allegiances of the remainder couldn’t be determined.

In March, the observatory had reported 1,780 civilians dead, just over 30 percent of the total.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cautioned that the totals are likely to be incomplete. Since the beginning of the conflict, the group, which relies on a network of activists on both sides of the conflict, has recorded 79,643 deaths that it says are verifiable.

Death tolls are considered imprecise for Syria because no independent source tracks casualties. The observatory, which opposes the Bashar Assad regime, is considered the most authoritative source of information, however, because it details deaths on both sides of the conflict. Its monthly totals provide a sense of the trend of the violence, which declined a year ago when a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was in place, then surged after that cease-fire – which was never fully honored – was abandoned. Before March, the previous highest number of deaths recorded was last August, at 5,400.

Syrians continued to flee the country by the tens of thousands throughout April, with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now saying that about 1.5 million have left the country. The UNHCR also has said that as many as 6.5 million Syrians still in the country lack basic necessities such as food and shelter. Many have been displaced multiple times as the fighting spreads to areas that previously had been relatively quiet.

“We’ve been traveling everywhere to get away from the fighting,” said Ubaida, a Syrian who arrived at a refugee camp in Jordan last week. He used only his first name because he feared reprisals by the Syrian government. Ubaida said he’d first fled Homs before moving to the city of Tadmor, in eastern Syria. When fighting broke out there, he took his family to the Damascus suburbs.

“We decided to finally just come to Jordan so as to at least be able to rest,” Ubaida said. “I now have nothing at all. Every time fighting would break out, the Red Crescent would coordinate with the rebels and the Syrian army and we would evacuate the area. Then when we got somewhere, the army would be setting up a safe zone, restoring services, and then fighting would start again. It’s becoming worse, and there is absolutely no work. I’m a chef, so I tried to work for a while with the (rebels) even, cooking for them, but there is almost no pay, and I have to take care of my family.”

As it has been since fighting broke out there last July, the capital of Damascus has been the most violent part of Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, another group that tracks casualties in rebel-held areas, recorded nearly twice as many deaths in Damascus as in any other province in April. It tallied 2,330 civilian deaths in rebel-held areas last month, as well as the deaths of 983 rebel fighters. The Damascus area accounted for 1,141 of those deaths, with Aleppo province, much of which is under rebel control, accounting for 633, the next highest total.

The beginning of the year found the rebels on the offensive in the north, east and south of the country, but their advance has stalled in recent weeks as the government appears to have bolstered its troops with newly trained militia forces, as well as the support of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that receives arms and support from Iran via Syria. Rebels also say ammunition has run low in many places, forcing their forces to withdraw from some battles.

McClatchy special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report from Jordan

Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com, Twitter: @davidjenders

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