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UN stops counting Syrian dead as first chemical weapons removed from the country

Lars Magne Hovtun / AFP - Getty Images

Ships on a training mission to prepare for the removal of Syrian chemical agents.

The “complex and dangerous” nature of Syria’s civil war has made it impossible to accurately update the death toll that last stood at around 100,000 people, a spokesman from the United Nations human rights office told NBC News on Tuesday.

"Gathering casualty figures in Syria has always been an exceptionally difficult exercise,” said Rupert Colville, from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“With the situation on the ground growing ever more complex and dangerous, and without access into the country to conduct fact-finding on the ground, it has become increasingly difficult for us to source and analyze the casualty figures in order to update them,” he added.

Colville said that accurately estimating the number of casualties had always been difficult and they had relied on the cooperation and transparency on a number of non-governmental groups to help them with the figure.

Bassam Al-Erbeeni / Reuters

A girl carrying a doll sits on a step of a building as a boy peeks out from its gate in Damascus suburbs of Arbeen.

He added that the number of those groups had shrunk over time and so they were not in a position to produce a report like those produced last year and he told The Associated Press that the U.N. was also unable to endorse the widely quoted figures from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, whose latest tally is more than 130,000 killed in violence in Syria since March 2011.

“If at some point, we feel that we can once again give a more accurate figure to reflect the true proportions of this continuing tragedy, we will do so, but for the time being the figure we continue to use is 'more than 100,000,'” he told NBC News. “This is by any reckoning a huge number of individuals to have lost their lives."

In a separate announcement, the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that a Danish ship has set sail from the Syrian port of Lattakia with the first batch of chemical weapons to be removed from the country — a crucial milestone in the international operation to rid the Syrian regime of its arsenal by midyear.

“This movement initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction,” special coordinator Sigrid Kaag said in a statement.

Accompanied by naval escorts from Denmark, Norway and Syria it will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port, she added.

“The Joint Mission encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to continue its efforts to complete the removal of chemical materials as soon as possible in a safe and timely manner,” Kaag said. 

Meanwhile, the State Department applauded the news that some chemical materials have been removed from the war-ravaged nation.

"This represents continued progress toward the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons program. Much more needs to be done. As the international community has made clear, it is the Assad regime's responsibility to transport these chemicals to Lattakia safely to facilitate their removal. We expect them to meet their obligations to do so," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

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