Syria holds local elections as death toll hits 5,000

Gun battles continued in several Syrian cities Monday, as the United Nations commissioner for human rights told the UN Security Council that the violence has now killed more than 5,000 people.

UN human rights chief gives updated figure during Security Council meeting

Children riding on the shoulders of adults shout during a protest march against President Bashar al-Assad in the streets of Idlib, Syria, after Friday prayers last week. The banner reads: Dignity Strike. (Reuters)

Gun battles continued in several Syrian cities Monday, as the United Nations commissioner for human rights told the UN Security Council that the violence has now killed more than 5,000 people.

The ongoing unrest overshadowed the first local elections in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began nine months ago.

Navi Pillay has been a harsh critic of Assad's response to the opposition movement. Before her address to the Security Council on Monday, the UN human rights chief told reporters her office is well placed to provide the UN's highest body with information about what's happening in Syria.

"Because of the evidence that we have gathered, we're in a position to alert the Security Council," she said. A fact-finding mission set up by Pillay's office in August recently released a report outlining a pattern of widespread torture, sexual violence and murder by Syrian security forces since the start of the uprising in March.

South African Navanethem Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks in Geneva, Switzerland on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011. Pillay is pressing the Syrian government to allow human rights observers into the Middle Eastern country. (Martial Trezzini, Keystone/Associated Press)

"The last time I addressed the Security Council in August, I said that 2,000 people had been killed, and now it's more than 4,000. Lives could have been changed if action had been taken sooner," she said.

During her address to the Security Council on Monday, she updated the death toll in Syria to more than 5,000 people.

But Pillay added that it was up to council members, not her office, to decide on a course of action. She said her report released late November was based on "reliable information," but on Friday she said her office could gain an even better understanding if Syria would allow trained UN observers into the country.

It is almost impossible to verify events in Syria, because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. Accounts from activists and witnesses, along with amateur videos posted online, provide key channels of information.

Army defectors clash with security forces

Pillay also warned the dissent could develop into a "fully fledged civil war," because of reports that a growing number of army defectors are battling security forces.

Fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors spread to new areas Monday after a major battle in the south over the weekend, activists said.

At least 16 people were reported killed nationwide on Monday, most of them in Homs, according to various activist networks.

The revolt has raised concerns of a regional conflagration, given Syria's strategic role in the Middle East with alliances in Iran and with the Shia militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says new clashes between soldiers and defectors were reported Monday in the northwestern region of Idlib, and that fighting continued for a second day in the southern province of Daraa.

On Monday, U.S. president Barack Obama reiterated his call for Assad to resign.

"We believe that international pressure, the approach that we've taken along with partners around the world to impose tough sanctions and to call on Assad to step down, a position that is increasingly mirrored by the Arab League states, is the right position to take," he told reporters after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But Bashar Akbik, the Syrian Charge d'Affaires to Canada, told host Carole MacNeil of CBC's News Now on Monday that Assad still has the support of the majority of the Syrian people.

He said that the reports of attacks and violence against civilians were part of a plot, by the UN and the United States.

"We have mercenaries working for the United States, for the West. They are trying to plant chaos in the streets and they try to show the world that the Syrian army and the security forces are harassing the people and shooting them. And this is not right."

Turnout low for local elections

Also Monday, Syria's state media reported that voting started in scheduled municipal elections, but witnesses say turnout was low. The opposition does not consider the vote a legitimate concession by the regime because it coincides with the deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Since the uprising began, Assad has made several gestures of reform. But after nine months, the opposition is demanding nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

On Sunday, army defectors set several military vehicles ablaze in a prolonged battle in Daraa province. Sunday also marked the start of calls for a general strike in Syria to push the government to stop its bloody crackdown. The strike was open-ended, until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases detainees.

Because of the restrictions placed on reporters, it was difficult to gauge how many people were abiding by the strike. But activists said few people were out in Daraa on Monday.

"Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open," said one resident of Homs who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. He said those stores stayed open because they sell essential goods.

Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown. Economic sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-run and erode his vital support base in the business community.

With files from The Associated Press