Rebels seize airport as Syria dead nears 70,000

Rebels seize airport as Syria dead nears 70,000

Rebels seize airport as Syria dead nears 70,000

"We will be judged against the tragedy that has unfolded before our eyes," warned the U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay. AP photo

Rebels on Tuesday overran a military air base and captured warplanes, gaining ground in northern Syria for a second straight day as the UN said the death toll from the 23-month conflict was nearly 70,000.

The military advance came as prospects for a political solution to the war faded and as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar al-Assad's regime to accept an opposition leader's dialogue offer.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured a military airport at Al-Jarrah in Aleppo province, seizing for the first time a fleet of warplanes including MiG fighters.

During the assault, the rebels killed, injured or imprisoned dozens of troops, the watchdog said, adding withdrawing troops also left behind ammunition.

Soon afterwards, regime fighter jets pounded Al-Jarrah to try to dislodge the rebels, the Observatory said, adding there were raids near the international airport which has come under a rebel assault.

A military source in Aleppo confirmed the rebel capture "after 48 hours of fierce combat", but downplayed the importance of Al-Jarrah.

"It is a very small airport, used for training purposes," he said. "There are only small amounts of unusable ammunition left there, and several planes that have long been out of action." But Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi of the opposition Free Syrian Army insisted the rebels achieved a "major advance" in Aleppo province and said there would be "more surprises" soon.

9,000 people killed in 2013

Meanwhile Syria’s intensifying civil war has probably killed over 9,000 people since the beginning of the year, bringing the likely death toll of the two-year-old conflict near 70,000, the U.N. human rights chief said on Feb 12.

At the beginning of January, less than six weeks ago, Navi Pillay said the death toll in Syria had exceeded 60,000, a figure she called "truly shocking" and much higher than the U.N. expected. That figure was a third higher than estimates by anti-regime activists at the time.

Opening a speech to a U.N. Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, Pillay recalled her announcement of 60,000 deaths in Syria and told members: "That figure is probably now approaching 70,000." She strongly criticized the U.N.’s most powerful body for its failure to end the killings.

The Security Council has been deeply divided over the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change but has evolved into a full-scale civil war.

The U.S. and its European allies have pushed for council action that would pressure President Bashar Assad to end the fighting, but Russia and China, allies of Syria, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions.

'We will be judged'

Pillay said "the lack of consensus on Syria and the resulting inaction has been disastrous, and civilians on all sides have paid the price."

"We will be judged against the tragedy that has unfolded before our eyes," she warned. "This council, as well as those of us in key positions within the U.N., will be rightly asked what we did."

Pillay said one immediate action the council can take is to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, which could investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"This would send a clear message to both the government and the opposition that there will be consequences for their actions, and could have a very significant preventive effect," she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who also addressed the council meeting, said he welcomed the debate triggered by the call from some countries for the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. He called the conflict "particularly acute and intractable."

Ban urged the council "to bring all your considerable powers to bear on reducing the unacceptable toll that conflict is taking every day on civilians" - in Syria and elsewhere around the world.