UNITED NATIONS/DAMASCUS - UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned Friday that Syria is in a “death spiral”, as his top humanitarian and human rights officials pleaded with the UN Security Council to take firmer action.

“You have seen the tragedy play out on your television screens,” Ban said, in a speech at Stanford University in California ahead of the closed Security Council meeting. “Syria is in a death spiral,” he said, highlighting the more than 60,000 people killed in a war that will soon enter its third year.

On top of the humanitarian crisis, a split between opponents and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has deadlocked efforts to reach a political end to the conflict. Ban said there were “deep divisions” between countries in the region and on the 15-member Security Council, where Russia and China have used their powers as permanent members to block three resolutions that would have threatened sanctions against Assad.

“We are still a long way from getting the Syrians together to make the key decisions that only they can make,” the UN Secretary General said, adding his voice to those who have called on the Security Council to act. UN rights chief Navi Pillay renewed a demand that the divided Security Council order an International Criminal Court war crimes investigation in Syria. Her call added to a petition by 58 countries calling for a war crimes case to be started. But Pillay said after a closed council meeting that she saw little sign that the 15-member body, badly split over the 22 month old conflict, was ready to take a decision.

“I firmly believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed, are being committed and should be investigated,” Pillay told reporters. “I have urged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity on the part of all parties engaged in this conflict,” she added.

Highlighting the UN estimate that more than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria, Pillay said victims in Syria “see the situation as the United Nations not carrying out its responsibility to protect victims.”

Syria is not an ICC member and the Security Council is the only body which can refer the conflict to the court.

Fierce clashes raged on Friday in the majority Kurdish northern Syrian city of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, a day after a sniper killed a French journalist in embattled Aleppo.

Despite the relentless bloodshed, protesters took to the streets of flashpoint areas in the strife-torn country, renewing their calls for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The fighting in Ras al-Ain comes six months after Assad’s troops withdrew from majority Kurdish areas, and fighters have since staged assaults on the strategic city, forcing most residents to flee. Syria’s Kurds are divided over the 22-month revolt against Assad - some support his regime, others back the uprising and others are striving to stay neutral.

On Friday, fighters from radical groups Al-Nusra Front and Ghuraba al-Sham battled Kurdish militiamen a day after launching a new assault on the border town, residents and activists said. On Thursday, “the fighting became more intense in the evening after Kurdish fighters received reinforcements to try to stop the fiercest rebel assault ever since insurgents first arrived in the city” in November, a resident identifying himself only as Mohammed told AFP. Al-Nusra Front is listed by the United States as a “terrorist” organisation. A Kurdish resident of Ras al-Ain, who said he opposed Assad’s regime, said the fighters crossed the Turkish border with three tanks into the city on Thursday. On Friday, “the Kurdish fighters seized one of the tanks,” the activist, who identified himself as Havidar, told AFP via the Internet.

While Turkey supports the revolt against Assad, it is also home to a sizeable Kurdish minority that has suffered much persecution and suppression. Activists say they fear Turkey may be using rebels in Syria to fight its own battle against the Kurds.

Meanwhile, a sniper shot dead Al-Jazeera reporter Mohammed Hourani in the southern Syrian province of Daraa, the Qatar-based satellite television network said. “Mohammed Hourani was shot dead by a regime sniper in Basr al-Harir in the province of Daraa, while he was covering the clashes there,” the pan-Arab news channel said.

He was the second reporter to be killed by snipers in 24 hours in strife-torn Syria. On Thursday, French journalist Yves Debay was shot dead in the northern city of Aleppo, watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. According to an AFP count and the Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders, at least 20 professional journalists have been killed in Syria’s 22-month conflict, alongside many civilians who have filmed or otherwise recorded the violence for the outside world.

Syria’s spiralling conflict has killed more than 60,000 people in less than two years, says the United Nations. The Observatory has documented 48,000 dead, most of them civilians.

On Friday, protesters braved intense violence in flashpoints and took to the streets calling for the fall of Assad’s regime, in demonstrations organised to honour at least 87 victims of a deadly bombing in Aleppo university on Tuesday.

In Kafr Nabel in northwestern Syria, whose residents’ artwork has become iconic in the revolt, protesters held up a painting of the University of Aleppo coloured black and red, with corpses and books strewn on the ground.

Later on Friday, regime forces shelled the town, killing at least one child, said the Observatory, which has said more than 3,500 children have died in Syria’s conflict. In Aleppo, angry protesters took to the streets of rebel-held districts. “They chanted slogans honouring the victims of Aleppo university, and demanded the fall of Assad’s regime,” said the Observatory.

The university bombings, for which the rebels and the regime exchanged blame, were superceded with new explosions on Friday.