The worst winter storm in two decades has hit the eastern Mediterranean this week, bringing destruction and death to Syria and its neighbors who are already dealing with a refugee crisis from the country’s civil war.
Opposition activists in Syria, where war has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and cut off access to food, fuel and power for cities and towns, say dozens of people have died there in four days of relentless extreme weather.
READ ON: Winter storm brings devastation to Syria and neighbors
More than 60,000 people have died in the Syrian uprising and civil war, the United Nations said on Wednesday, dramatically raising the death toll in a struggle that shows no sign of ending.
Dozens were killed in a Damascus suburb when a government air strike turned a petrol station into an inferno, incinerating drivers who had rushed there for a rare chance to fill their tanks, activists said.
“I counted at least 30 bodies. They were either burnt or dismembered,” said Abu Saeed, an activist who arrived at the area an hour after the raid occurred at 1:00 PM (1100 GMT) in Muleiha, a suburb on the eastern edge of the capital.
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said in Geneva that researchers cross-referencing seven sources over five months of analysis had listed 59,648 people killed in Syria between March 15, 2011 and November 30, 2012.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected and is truly shocking,” she said. “Given that there has been no let-up in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013.”
Reuters TV: Inside the Free Syrian Army’s homemade rocket making machine
Syrian rebels have been using homemade rockets to make advances against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Assad’s forces also suffered a demoralizing setback when the head of its military police defected.
FLASH: U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon wrote to Syria’s Assad and urged him not to use chemical weapons - U.N. statement
Western powers are whipping up fears of a fateful move to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war as a “pretext for intervention”, President Bashar al-Assad’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.
He spoke as Germany’s cabinet approved stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries on Turkey’s border with Syria, a step requiring deployment of NATO troops that Syria fears could permit imposition of a no-fly zone over its territory.
“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Faisal Maqdad said.
By day, the streets of Syria’s capital are crowded with cars and with shoppers. It looks normal, but it isn’t - by noon, people are planning how to get home before nightfall.
Roads suddenly blocked by the army cause traffic jams. Workers race to quit the office, hit the shops and get home by dark. Dark is when the kidnappers come out to seek new victims, and the clashes raging on the outskirts creep ever closer to the heart of Damascus.
For months, the people of Damascus have nervously watched their ancient city dragged deeper into Syria’s bloody conflict.
Fighting has already laid waste to much of the northern city of Aleppo and burned parts of its vaulted Old City quarter to the ground. Whole swathes of central Homs have been reduced to rubble.
“I’ve seen what happens and have a sinking feeling about what comes next. We fear killing and bombing, we fear being forced to flee, or being looted by the army or the rebels,” said Majed, 28, a hotel worker from central Damascus. “What would happen to our beautiful Old City? It is mental torture.”
The 20-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, is now finally threatening the seat of power. Residents describe a foreboding and anxiety overtaking Damascus.
Rush hour now starts around 3 p.m., well before dusk.
NATO told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response.
The warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came as Syrian forces bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad’s power base.
Syrian state media said a rebel mortar attack on a school had killed 28 students and a teacher.
International concern over Syria’s intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use.
“The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community,” Rasmussen told reporters at the start of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels.