Syria crackdown has killed 5,000 people, UN says

A Syrian man, right, reacts next to his brother who was seriously wounded during a violence between security forces and armed groups in Latakia, northwest of Damascus, Syria, on Sunday, March 27, 2011. Syria has been rocked by more than a week of demonstrations that began in the drought-parched southern agricultural city of Daraa and exploded nationwide on Friday, with security forces opening fire on demonstrators in at least six places and killing dozens. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla) Hussein Malla

Updated at 6:53 a.m. Eastern.

BEIRUT - The death toll from Syria's crackdown on a 9-month-old uprising has exceeded 5,000 people, the top U.N. rights official said Monday, as Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school as part of a general strike to pressure President Bashar Assad to end the bloodshed.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at least 300 children are among those killed in the Assad regime's attempts to stamp out the revolt, and that thousands of people remain in detention.

Speaking at the United Nations, Pillay said she told Security Council members of the increase in deaths during an afternoon briefing, and said she recommended that the council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, the permanent war crimes tribunal, for investigation of possible crimes against humanity.

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U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said Pillay's briefing "underscores the urgency of the present moment," and urged the U.N. Security Council to take concrete steps to bring the violence to an end.

Bensouda, who will take up her new position in six months, told CBS News on Monday that the ICC cannot act on Syria without a referral from the Security Council because Syria is not a state party.

In the case of Libya, Bensouda said, the ICC acted on a referral when it issued an arrest warrant for Muammar Qaddafi because there was consensus on the Council and, regardless of the reports of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Russia and China continue to block any action on Syria.

CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk says the U.N. remains deadlocked on Syria, and the Syrian regime feels protected from the international community by Russia, which maintains important naval bases in Syria. Assad knows the U.S. and NATO are loath to act militarily without the U.N. authorization. Russia even sent warships to Syria three weeks ago in a show of military force intended to forestall any NATO military action, notes Falk.

The only reason the U.N. human rights chief was able to brief the Security Council on Syria about the dramatic increase in civilian deaths, was because France threatened to call a procedural vote after Russia scoffed at the idea of a briefing, says Falk, "so the Council is a long way from action, unless some seriously diplomatic action takes place behind the scenes."

Dimming hopes for such a diplomatic breakthrough, Russia's foreign minister on Tuesday angrily accused the West of taking an "immoral" stance on Syria by pressuring Assad while refusing to condemn violence by what he called "armed extremist groups" trying to oust the Arab strongman.

Sergey Lavrov also rebuffed calls on Moscow to back sanctions against Syria. He did, however, back the Arab League's push to send observers to the country, which some fear is on the verge of civil war.

Russia has had strong ties with Syria since Soviet times, supplying it with weapons and gaining a conduit for influence in the Middle East.

Assad has shown no sign of easing his crackdown, despite mounting international pressure, including a recent spate of economic sanctions from the EU, the Arab League and Turkey, that are punishing the Syrian economy, a dangerous development for the government in Damascus.

Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera reported Tuesday that another 15 people had been killed by Assad's security forces, according to activists, including 11 in the region of Idlib.

Now, the open-ended strike by Syrian businesses also takes direct aim at Syria's already ailing economy. It is designed to erode Assad's main base of support — the new and vibrant merchant classes who have benefited in recent years as the president opened up the economy.

If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country, where calls are growing by the day for him to step down. The authoritarian president is already struggling under international isolation and suffocating sanctions.

It is difficult to gauge the strength of the strike because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. But there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in centers of anti-government protest: the southern province of Daraa, the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, the northwestern region of Idlib and in the restive city of Homs.

Further evidence of both the brutal crackdown, and the economic malaise gripping Syria, came from the direct account of CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward, who snuck into the closed nation posing as a tourist and then linked up with opposition activists at the end of November.

Ward found a Syrian capital full of market traders longing for the days when drones of tourists flocked to their stalls, and that was before the general strike began.

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The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees.

"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.

In addition to the strike, he said, security was tight in Homs on Monday with agents deployed at every intersection. The crackle of gunfire erupted sporadically.

"There is a terrifying security deployment in Homs," he said.

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