Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is greeted by children of soldiers during a ceremony to mark Martyrs' Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus May 6, 2011. UPI/Handout.. | License Photo
DAMASCUS, Syria, May 13 (UPI) -- The two-month crackdown by Syrian forces on anti-government protesters has left as many as 850 people dead, a U.N. official said Friday.
The estimate was made in Geneva, Switzerland, as forces in Syria prepared for demonstrations on what activists called "The Friday of Free Syrian Women" -- in honor of women who have rallied for freedom and people who have died in the protests, CNN reported.
Several human rights groups estimate between 700 and 850 people have died in clashes with Syrian government forces, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Colville said thousands of arrests have been reported since protests began March 15.
"We cannot verify these numbers for sure but believe they are likely to be close to reality," Colville said during a media briefing in Geneva.
Human rights groups and residents said more government forces were deployed near Hama and Baniyas Friday, The New York Times reported.
A resident in Baniyas said fewer people turned out for prayers and there were no post-prayer demonstrations.
"People are extremely scared," Abu Obada told the Times. "They're worried about snipers and they're worried about the security forces. Most of the people prayed at home."
The government has been cracking down on demonstrations during the past two months in Daraa, Homs, Baniyas and other cities, with fatal confrontations erupting. The protests have been against the government of President Bashar Assad.
The United Nations has been urging the Assad government to exercise restraint.
Syrian officials said the government is fighting an insurrection by "armed terrorists" and deployed troops and tanks to protect civilians.
On Thursday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported a government official as saying that more than 3,700 people voluntarily surrendered to authorities and were freed "after pledging not to repeat any [acts] that harm security of the homeland and citizens."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday accused the Syrian government of engaging in unlawful detention and torture of its citizens and denying medical treatment to the wounded.
"Now, there may be some who think that this is a sign of strength," Clinton said, "but treating one's own people in this way is, in fact, a sign of remarkable weakness."