March was Syrian civil war's bloodiest month as 6,000 die in conflict

Total of 2,080 civilians killed during the month, including 298 children and 291 women

March was the bloodiest month yet in Syria's two-year-old conflict with more than 6,000 documented deaths, a leading anti-regime activist group has said, blaming the increase on heavier shelling and more violent clashes.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the toll is likely to be incomplete because both the Syrian army and the rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad's government often under-report their dead in the civil war.

"Both sides are hiding information," he said by phone from Britain, where his group is based.

"It is very difficult to get correct info on the fighters because they don't want the information to hurt morale."

The numbers, while provided by only one group, support the appraisal of the conflict offered by many Syria watchers - the civil war is largely a military stalemate that is destroying the country's social fabric and taking a huge toll on civilians.

The increase also reflects the continuing spread of major hostilities to new parts of Syria.

While clashes continue in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, Syria's three largest cities, rebels have launched an offensive in recent weeks to seize towns and army bases in the southern province of Daraa, largely with the help of an influx of foreign-funded weapons.

The Observatory, which works through a network of contacts in Syria, said those killed in March included similar numbers of combatants on both sides: 1,486 rebels and army defectors and 1,464 soldiers from the Syrian army.

But the number of civilians killed exceeded them both, with a total of 2,080 for the month, including 298 children and 291 women.

In addition, there were 387 unidentified civilians and 588 unidentified fighters, most of them foreigners fighting with the rebels, bringing the March total to 6,005, Mr Abdul-Rahman said.

He criticised the international community for not doing more to stop the bloodshed, which he said could increase.

"If there is no solution, we think the numbers will get worse in the coming months," he said.

The March toll surpassed what had previously been the deadliest month, August 2012, when airstrikes, clashes and shelling killed more than 5,400 people, Mr Abdul-Rahman said.

His total death toll for the conflict through to the end of March was 62,554, a number he acknowledged as incomplete, suggesting the true figure could be twice as high.

Besides the under-reporting of dead fighters by both sides, he mentioned the tens of thousands of missing persons and captives held by the regime and the rebels. The fate of these people is rarely uncovered, he said.

He also said more than 12,000 pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha," along with government informers may have been killed by the opposition and never reported.

The Observatory's numbers are not as high as those given by the United Nations.

On February 18, a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report saying about 70,000 people had been killed in the conflict.

Assad's regime describes the conflict as a foreign conspiracy to weaken the country carried out by terrorists on the ground.

AP

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