UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused both the Syrian government and the opposition Tuesday of large-scale human rights violations, including torturing and reportedly executing prisoners and failing to protect civilians fleeing the war-ravaged country in record numbers.
In an address to the U.N. General Assembly, Ban demanded that those responsible for violating international humanitarian and human rights laws be held accountable.
The U.N. chief went before the 193-nation world body to report on an intensifying conflict that he said has taken "a particularly brutal turn." He warned that "the entire region is being engulfed by the complex dynamics of the conflict."
Activists say the civil war has claimed between 23,000 and 26,000 lives.
The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that more than 100,000 Syrians fled their country in August, the highest monthly total since the crisis began in March 2011. A total of 234,368 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries in the past 17 months, the agency said.
Ban said more than 2.5 million people inside Syria need assistance, along with those who have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. He urged donors to come forward, saying the U.N. appeal for $180 million is only half-funded.
The U.N. chief accused Syrian forces of indiscriminately shelling densely populated areas with heavy weapons, tanks and military aircraft and urged both sides – but especially President Bashar Assad's government – to end the fighting.
Ban lamented that civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence, saying even people in bread lines have been attacked.
"Prisoners on both sides are subject to harsh treatment and, often, torture," he said. "There have been alarming reports of summary executions on both sides."
He added, "government forces and the armed opposition have clearly failed to protect civilians and respect the rules of international humanitarian law."
The U.N. chief urged the world to unite behind a plan to end the conflict.
Missing in all international initiatives so far, Ban said, "is a unity of effort that will have an impact on the ground."
"How many more will be killed and wounded, their lives shattered, before president Assad and his advisers are persuaded to change course?" Ban asked. "How can we convince armed groups that a better future lies not in fighting, but in building the foundations of a new political and social contract that guarantees freedom and justice?"
Syria's most important allies, Russia and China, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions in the U.N. Security Council aimed at stepping up pressure on Assad's government to end the conflict by threatening sanctions. As a result, the U.N.'s most powerful body remains paralyzed and unable to address the escalating civil war.
The secretary-general appealed to those providing arms to either side to end the "highly dangerous" escalating military action.
"Those who provide arms to either side are only contributing to further misery – and the risk of unintended consequences as the fighting intensifies and spreads," he warned.
The General Assembly meeting also provided the first opportunity for U.N. member states to hear from Lakhdar Brahimi, the new U.N.-Arab League special representative to Syria. Brahimi replaced Kofi Annan on Sept. 1.
Ban urged all countries to unite behind Brahimi's mission, which he called "daunting but not insurmountable."
Ban said Brahimi will visit Cairo shortly for talks with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby before heading to Damascus "as soon as possible."
In his brief speech to the General Assembly, Brahimi called the support of the international community for his mission "indispensable and very urgent."
"It will only be effective if all pull in the same direction," he said.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the assembly that his government is fully prepared to cooperate with Brahimi "with a view to bringing about the full success of his efforts." He called on all parties with influence on the armed groups to ensure their cooperation with Brahimi.
Elsewhere, the head of the main Syrian opposition group called Tuesday for a massive aid program to rebuild Syria in the event of the fall of the Assad regime and warned that a lack of economic development would open the door to extremism.
Abdelbaset Sieda, the head of the Syrian National Council, told a meeting of Syrian opposition representatives and diplomats in Berlin that a program similar to the post-World War II European reconstruction effort, commonly known as the Marshall Plan, would be needed.
The gathering of a working group on economic rebuilding, which Germany chairs jointly with the United Arab Emirates, was designed to address how to prevent basic services and infrastructure collapsing, and how to revive the economy in a post-Assad Syria.
Unlike neighboring Iraq, Syria lacks vast oil reserves that could kick-start the economy and help finance the reconstruction of infrastructure damaged in the fighting.
The meeting's host, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, said economic recovery and a successful political transition must go hand in hand, and called on the international community to be ready to provide economic support.
But he said the divided Syrian opposition must urgently unite.
"The people in Syria must see that there is a credible alternative to the regime of Bashar Assad," he said.
"There can be no doubt, the days of the regime are numbered," Westerwelle added. "It has lost all legitimacy to represent the Syrian people, it is crumbling from inside."
Associated Press writer David Rising contributed to this report from Berlin.