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U.N. Envoy Revises Syria Death Toll to 400,000

A senior United Nations official said Friday that the five-year civil war in Syria has killed 400,000 people, a staggering figure that underscores the war’s carnage -- and is far higher than the previous U.N. toll of 250,000 calculated a year and a half ago.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016.

Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016. Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016. Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

A senior United Nations official said Friday that the five-year civil war in Syria has killed some 400,000 people, a staggering figure that underscores the war’s carnage -- and is far higher than the previous U.N. toll of 250,000 calculated a year and a half ago.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s special envoy in Syria, said the 400,000 figure is based on his “own analysis,” and is not an official U.N. figure, but it comes close to a recent calculation by a Syrian research group that estimated at least 470,000 Syrians had died in the war.

The U.N. stopped counting the death toll in Syria due to a lack of confidence in its own data, a nearly insurmountable problem in a complex conflict involving a vast array of militant groups and a government eager to downplay casualty figures.

A senior United Nations official said Friday that the five-year civil war in Syria has killed some 400,000 people, a staggering figure that underscores the war’s carnage — and is far higher than the previous U.N. toll of 250,000 calculated a year and a half ago.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s special envoy in Syria, said the 400,000 figure is based on his “own analysis,” and is not an official U.N. figure, but it comes close to a recent calculation by a Syrian research group that estimated at least 470,000 Syrians had died in the war.

The U.N. stopped counting the death toll in Syria due to a lack of confidence in its own data, a nearly insurmountable problem in a complex conflict involving a vast array of militant groups and a government eager to downplay casualty figures.

“We had 250,000 as a figure two years ago,” said de Mistura. “Well two years ago was two years ago.”

De Mistura’s remarks come as an uptick of fighting between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups working to unseat him has all-but unravelled the fragile cessation of hostilities agreement, sponsored by the United States and Russia, that went into effect on Feb. 27.

The U.N. envoy vowed to continue the current peace talks in Geneva through Wednesday of next week despite a decision by the main armed opposition group to demand a suspension of the negotiations until the Assad regime stops bombarding rebel-held towns, releases detainees, and provides more access for humanitarian aid.

“We asked to postpone,” Salem al-Muslat, the spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview. “But most of us are still here in Geneva and we’ve had meetings discussing technical issues.”

The talks are aimed at finding an agreement on a transitional government to end the conflict, which has created the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the rise of the Islamic State militant group.

Riad Hijab, the opposition’s general coordinator, left the Swiss city for meetings in Jordan. But Muslat said if developments significantly change, Hijab will be back in Geneva “within hours.”

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