Damaged Syria buildings
Damaged Syria buildings Reuters

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, the UN said on Wednesday, as dozens more died or were wounded when an air strike hit a service station near Damascus.

AFP reported that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in Geneva that 59,648 people had died through the end of November in the 21-month conflict, which began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011.

"Given there has been no let-up in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013," Pillay said in a statement quoted by the news agency.

"The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking," she added.

Pillay said in December 2011 that the UN was unable to provide precise figures on the number of deaths. Since then, media have been relying on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which put the total on Monday at more than 46,000.

"Although this is the most detailed and wide-ranging analysis of casualty figures so far, this is by no means a definitive figure," Pillay said, according to AFP.

Analysis has shown a steady increase in the average number of documented deaths per month since the beginning of the conflict, growing from around 1,000 in the summer of 2011 to an average of more than 5,000 since July 2012.

The Observatory said a regime air strike in the Eastern Ghuta region of Damascus killed or wounded dozens of people, many of them horribly burned.

"There are 12 bodies that have been found at the scene, including a number of rebels from different local battalions," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. "It is not yet clear if the gas station was the target."

The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, estimated that at least 50 people were killed and dozens of others wounded.

It said the toll was likely to rise because bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, adding that "it is extremely difficult to count the dead because most of the bodies have been immolated."

The attack followed one on New Year's Eve near Damascus, in which a number of civilians, mostly children, were killed.

The same day, activists discovered what they said were dozens of tortured corpses in Damascus.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the family of an American journalist who was kidnapped by gunmen in northwest Syria six weeks ago and is still missing, urged the U.S. public to do anything they can to help bring him home.

The family of James Foley, which had earlier asked media not to report his abduction in the hope that a low profile would assist in efforts to free him, broke their silence on Wednesday to reveal his plight.

"We want Jim to come safely home, or at least we need to speak with him to know he's okay," said his father, John Foley. Addressing the captors he said, "To the people who have Jim, please contact us so we can work together toward his release."

Foley, 39, an experienced reporter who has covered other conflicts, was seized by armed men in the town of Taftanaz province on November 22, along with a driver and a translator who were later released, according to witnesses.

No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction.

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