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Activist group says Syrian civil war has now killed more than 100,000 people

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BEIRUT - The civil war in Syria has now killed more than 100,000 people, a grim new estimate Wednesday that comes at a time when the conflict is spreading beyond its borders and hopes are fading for a settlement to end the bloodshed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been tracking the death toll through a network of activists in the country, said most of the 100,191 killed in the last 27 months were combatants.

The regime losses were estimated at nearly 43,000, including pro-government militias and 169 fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group — a recent entrant in the conflict.

The Observatory said 36,661 of the dead are civilians. Recorded deaths among the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad reached more than 18,000, including 2,518 foreign fighters.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said he suspected that the toll actually was higher, since neither side has been totally forthcoming about its losses.

The United Nations recently estimated that 93,000 people were killed between March 2011, when the crisis started, and the end of April 2013, concurring with Abdul-Rahman that the actual toll is likely much higher.

The Syrian government has not given a death toll. State media published the names of the government's dead in the first months of the crisis, but then stopped publishing its losses after the opposition became an armed insurgency.

Abdul-Rahman said that the group's tally of military deaths is based on information from medical sources, records obtained by the group from state agencies and activists' own count of funerals in government-held areas of the country. Other sources are the activist videos showing soldiers who were killed in rebel areas and later identified.

The new estimate comes at a time when hopes for peace talks are fading. The U.N.'s special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said Tuesday an international conference proposed by Russia and the U.S. will not take place until later in the summer, partly because of opposition disarray.

Regime forces are pushing into rebel-held areas in an attempt to secure the seat of Assad's power in the capital of Damascus and along the Mediterranean coast in the heartland of the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs.

The offensive, along with new reports that Assad has used chemical weapons in 10 different incidents in the conflict, also prompted Washington and its allies to declare they have decided to arm the rebels.

On Wednesday, the Observatory said the regime drove rebels out of the town of Talkalakh, along the border with Lebanon. The town, which had a predominantly Sunni population of about 70,000 before the conflict, is surrounded by 12 Alawite villages located within walking distance of the Lebanon border.

The government takeover will likely affect the rebels' ability to bring supplies, fighters and weapons from Lebanon.

The town also lies on the highway that links the city of Homs to Tartus, in the coastal Alawite enclave that is home to one of Syria's two main seaports.

Syrian state TV showed soldiers patrolling the streets of Talkalakh, inspecting underground tunnels and displaying weapons seized from the opposition.

The governor of Homs, Ahmed Munir, told the private Lebanese broadcaster al-Mayadeen that some rebels in Talkalakh handed their weapons over to authorities. He said the town was a major area for infiltrators from Lebanon.

"Talkalakh is clear of weapons," Munir said.

Southeast of Talkalakh, government forces also took control of the village of Quarayaten on a highway that links the rebels to another supply route from Iraq, according to an activist who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

The regime victories are likely to help it advance on rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, he said. The activist, who is connected to rebels in Homs, spoke by Skype.

The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, urged the U.N. to help civilians in Talkalakh open routes to facilitate the rescue of women, children, the elderly and the wounded.

The fighting has increasingly taken on sectarian overtones. Sunni Muslims dominate the rebel ranks while Assad's regime is dominated by Alawites, and has been backed by Hezbollah fighters, particularly in towns near the Lebanese borders.

The conflict has also polarized the region. Several Gulf states, including Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, back the rebels. Shiite powerhouse Iran is a major Assad supporter.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi lashed out at Saudi Arabia after that country condemned Damascus for enlisting fighters from its Lebanese ally in its struggle with rebels.

The remarks by al-Zoubi were carried late Tuesday by the state agency SANA after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jiddah and condemned Assad for bolstering his army with fighters from Hezbollah. Prince Saud charged that Syria faces a "foreign invasion."

Al-Zoubi fired back, saying Saudi diplomats have blood on their hands and are "trembling in fear of the victories of the Syrian army."

___

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.

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