Updated Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 06:24 AM
BEIRUT — The United Nations gave a grim new count Wednesday of the human cost of Syria's civil war, saying the death toll has exceeded 60,000 in 21 months, far higher than recent estimates by anti-government activists.
The U.N. report, from High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, blamed both sides for Syria's violence and expressed alarm that the conflict's transformation into a sectarian dispute, pitting the largely Sunni rebel movement against Syrian President Bashar Assad's Shiite-offshoot Alawite minority, makes it all the harder to stop.
Pillay criticized the government for inflaming the conflict by cracking down on peaceful protests and said rebel groups, too, have killed unjustifiably. Acts by both sides could be considered war crimes, she said.
She also faulted world powers for not stopping the violence. "The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting shames us all," Pillay said. "Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns."
The bloodshed continued Wednesday, as nearly 100 people were reported killed around Damascus in air raids, including 72 people at a gas station, according to a rebel activist spokesperson. There was no confirmation from the Syrian government.
Rebel activist groups have previously estimated the death toll at more than 45,000.
The new death toll was compiled by independent experts commissioned by the U.N. human-rights office who compared 147,349 killings reported by seven different sources, including the Syrian government.
After removing duplicates, they had a list of 59,648 individuals killed between the start of the uprising on March 15, 2011, and Nov. 30, 2012. In each case, the victim's first and last name and the date and location of death were known. Killings in December pushed the number past 60,000, Pillay said.
The total death toll is likely to be even higher because incomplete reports were excluded, and some killings may not have been documented at all.
"There are many names not on the list for people who were quietly shot in the woods," Pillay's spokesman Rupert Colville said.
The U.N. said it could not make a distinction between civilian and combat deaths.
The new report indicated that the pace of killing has accelerated. Monthly death tolls in summer 2011 were about 1,000. A year later, they had reached about 5,000 a month.
The U.N. refugee agency also said about 84,000 people fled Syria in December alone, bringing the total number of refugees to about a half-million. Many more are displaced inside Syria.
In the latest developments on the ground, rebel activists reported a MiG jet shelling a fuel station Wednesday with cluster bombs in the Damascus neighborhood of Mleiha. Rebel spokeswoman Susan Ahmed, based in Damascus, said at least 72 people were killed and dozens more wounded, with casualties expected to rise.
There was no confirmation of the incident from the Syrian government. A video posted online showed vehicles on fire, plumes of black smoke and bodies.
"The regime targeted the petrol station with cluster bombs when cars were in line for diesel," Ahmed said.
In the suburb of Mudhamiya, two bakeries and a house were shelled from the air, killing 27 people, Ahmed reported. The Syrian government had no confirmation.
In a related development, the family of U.S. journalist James Foley said Wednesday he has been missing in Syria since being kidnapped more than a month ago. Foley, of Rochester, N.H., also was held by government forces in Libya while covering that country's civil war.
Foley, 39, has worked in a number of conflict zones in the Middle East, including Syria, Libya and Iraq. He was contributing videos to Agence France-Press while in Syria.
Foley and another journalist were working in the northern province of Idlib when they were kidnapped near the village of Taftanaz on Nov. 22.
Media outlets refrained from reporting on Foley's kidnapping until his family released its statement. The other reporter's family has requested that reporter's name not be made public.
The news agency was doing all it could to get Foley released.
Also Wednesday, a company based in the Philippines that handled shipping containers at Syria's largest port said it was canceling its contract, citing an "untenable, hostile and dangerous business environment."
The Manila-based International Container Terminal Services said the amount of port traffic had gone down, hurting business, while conditions in Syria grew more dangerous.
Bashar Assad's government is under siege.