BEIRUT (AP) - The death toll from Syria's crackdown on a 9-month-old uprising has exceeded 5,000 people, the top U.N. rights official said Monday, as Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school as part of a general strike to pressure President Bashar Assad to end the bloodshed.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at least 300 children are among those killed in the Assad regime's attempts to stamp out the revolt, and that thousands of people remain in detention.
Speaking at the United Nations, Pillay said she told Security Council members of the increase in deaths during an afternoon briefing, and said she recommended that the council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, the permanent war crimes tribunal, for investigation of possible crimes against humanity.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said Pillay's briefing "underscores the urgency of the present moment," and urged the U.N. Security Council to take concrete steps to bring the violence to an end.
Assad has shown no little sign of easing his crackdown, despite mounting international pressure, including a recent spate of economic sanctions from the EU, the Arab League and Turkey, that are punishing the Syrian economy, a dangerous development for the government in Damascus.
Now, the open-ended strike by Syrian businesses also takes direct aim at Syria's already ailing economy. It is designed to erode Assad's main base of support - the new and vibrant merchant classes who have benefited in recent years as the president opened up the economy.
If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country, where calls are growing by the day for him to step down. The authoritarian president is already struggling under international isolation and suffocating sanctions.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of the strike because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. But there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in centers of anti-government protest: the southern province of Daraa, the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, the northwestern region of Idlib and in the restive city of Homs.
The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees.
"Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open," said one resident of Homs. He said those stores stayed open because they sell essential goods.
In addition to the strike, he said, security was tight in Homs on Monday with agents deployed at every intersection. The crackle of gunfire erupted sporadically.
"There is a terrifying security deployment in Homs," he said.
Activists said a new round of clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas Monday, raising fears the conflict is spiraling toward civil war.
At least 16 people were reported killed nationwide on Monday, most of them in Homs, according to various activist networks.