BEIRUT -- The United Nations gave a grim new count yesterday of the human cost of Syria's civil war, saying the death toll has exceeded 60,000 in 21 months -- far higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists.

The day's events illustrated the escalating violence that has made recent months the deadliest of the conflict: As rebels pressed a strategy of attacking airports and pushing the fight closer to President Bashar Assad's stronghold in Damascus, the government responded with deadly airstrikes on restive areas around the capital.

A a fighter jet's missile hit a gas station in the suburb of Mleiha, killing or wounding dozens of people who were trapped in burning debris, activists said.

It was unclear whether the government had a military strategy for attacking the gas station. At least one of the wounded wore a military-style vest often used by rebel fighters.

Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change, has evolved into a full-scale civil war.

As the rebels have grown more organized and effective, seizing territory in the north and establishing footholds around Damascus, the government has stepped up its use of air power. The escalating violence has sent the death toll soaring.

The UN's count of more than 60,000 deaths is one-third higher than recent estimates by anti-regime activists. "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking," said Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights.

She criticized the government for inflaming the conflict by cracking down on peaceful protests and said rebel groups, too, have killed unjustifiably. Acts by both sides could be considered war crimes, she said.

Pillay also faulted world powers for not finding a way to stop the violence.

"The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting shames us all," she said.

The death toll data didn't distinguish among soldiers, rebels or civilians.

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