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Opposition activists say death toll from Syria's 3-year conflict exceeds 160,000

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This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings which were destroyed from a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, May. 17, 2014. The United Nations chief has condemned a cut in water supplies in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that he said has deprived at least 2.5 million people of access to potable water. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

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This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings which were destroyed from a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, May. 17, 2014. The United Nations chief has condemned a cut in water supplies in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that he said has deprived at least 2.5 million people of access to potable water. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

BEIRUT - The death toll in Syria's three-year conflict has climbed past 160,000, an activist group said Monday, a harrowing figure that reflects the relentless bloodletting in a civil war that appears no closer to being resolved.

The grim tally, however, only presents one facet of the tremendous suffering that Syrians have endured since the revolt against President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011. The crisis has also uprooted some 6.5 million people from their homes, forced 2.7 million to flee the country, laid waste to cities and towns alike, and unleashed sectarian hatreds that have rippled across the region.

The government has presented Syria's June 3 presidential election, which Assad is widely expected to win, as a means to end the conflict. The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the vote as a farce aimed solely at lending Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy.

It also remains unclear how the government can hold a credible vote when the nation is engulfed in fighting and a significant chunk of the country is in opposition hands.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it has documented 162,402 deaths in the conflict, including civilians, rebels and members of the Syrian military. That figure also contains militiamen, such as members the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group who have been fighting alongside Assad's forces, as well as foreign fighters among the opposition forces.

The Observatory remains the sole organization providing a reliable tally of Syria's war dead.

The United Nations has stopped updating its own tally of the Syrian dead, saying it can no longer verify the sources of information. The world body's last count in late July was 100,000 killed.

The Observatory bases its figures on information it obtains from a network of activists inside Syria. Its numbers are based on the names of those killed, collected by activists who document the dead in hospitals, morgues and identify them from video materials.

Civilians comprised about a third, or 53,978, of the Observatory's new toll. Those deaths include 8,607 children and 5,586 women.

The uprising also has killed 26,858 rebel fighters and 37,685 Syrian soldiers, the Observatory said. It said 25,147 pro-government fighters also have died on the battlefield, including 438 Hezbollah militants, and 1,224 Shiite foreign fighters and Palestinian militants.

The Syrian government does not publicize the number of its casualties.

The Observatory counted 13,529 deaths among foreigners and other fighters who have sided with the rebels, including members of an al-Qaida-linked group and other hard-line Islamic groups. There are also 2,891 unidentified bodies in the conflict, and 2,314 identified bodies of Syrian army troops who have crossed over to the opposition side to fight the government.

The Observatory considers its tally a rough estimate and said the overall figure of those killed was higher than the sum of subcategories.

On the opposition side, Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role in the armed opposition, dampening the West's support for the rebellion.

Syria's uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule before slowly turning into a civil war. The conflict has taken on sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels battling an Assad government that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Bickering among the opposition's exiled politicians who make up the Western-Backed Syrian National Coalition has hampered efforts to create a credible alternative to Assad.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the opposition's Turkey-based interim government said its defence minister, Asaad Mustafa, had submitted his resignation. The spokeswoman, Sarah Karkour, did not say why Mustafa was stepping down.

An opposition official told The Associated Press by telephone that Mustafa had differences and disagreements with others in the government, including interim Prime Minister Ahmad Toumeh.

Mustafa's resignation only goes into effect with the approval of the coalition's president, Ahmad al-Jarba, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the issue.

Later in the day, U.N. officials said that Syria's smaller neighbour Lebanon was desperate for help as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees continue to stream into the country.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that over a million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon, with 50,000 new refugees signing up with U.N. agencies each month.

In Geneva earlier, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief in Lebanon, Ross Mountain, told reporters that at this rate, Lebanon will be home to 1.5 million refugees by year's end — one third of Lebanon's population of 4.5 million.

In New York, 58 countries issued a joint appeal to all 193 U.N. member states Monday to show their support by co-sponsoring a French-drafted resolution that would authorize the world's permanent war crimes tribunal to investigate allegations of heinous crimes by the Syrian government, pro-government militias, and armed opposition groups.

France has called for a vote Thursday and Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has already said Moscow — Syria's closest ally — opposes the resolution, which means an almost certain veto.

___

Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.

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