Assad announces May date for Syrian elections


SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad decreed yesterday that the country’s parliamentary elections would be held on May 7th, nearly a month ahead of the previously scheduled date.

The poll will be the first under a multi-party system adopted in a new constitution approved by referendum on February 26th.

Milhem al-Droubi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition coalition of exiles, said they would boycott the election which would be “fixed . . . What we want is real change with a real presidential election”.

Dr Assad’s announcement came as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was expecting Syria’s reply on proposals for a ceasefire submitted last weekend.

Mr Annan was in Istanbul for meetings with the SNC, which he stated has promised its “full co-operation . . . Once I receive [Damascus’s] answer we will know how to react”. Mr Annan is tasked with bringing about a ceasefire by all forces, provide access for humanitarian aid and launch political dialogue.

SNC head Burhan Ghalioun observed that while foreign governments have pledged to provide arms for the rebels, the consensus is for a political and diplomatic solution to the crisis.

This amounts to a reversal for Dr Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, who has battled with more hawkish members of the group, including those belonging to the Brotherhood, over the militarisation of the revolt.

It is not clear whether a multi-party poll is part of the still secret six-point peace plan presented by Mr Annan.

But Dr Assad’s announcement shows he is moving ahead with the transition from Baath party rule to democracy without making a commitment on a ceasefire at a time the army is engaged in a systematic campaign to quell rebel activity in Syria’s major cities.

Dr Assad may feel he is in a strong position because Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has reiterated Moscow’s intention to continue selling arms to Syria and argued that the government could not be expected to cease fire and withdraw from recaptured urban areas while this is not required of rebels.

He insisted that the ceasefire and forced withdrawals must be simultaneous. He asserted: “A unilateral withdrawal of government forces is absolutely unrealistic. The Syrian authorities will not do this . . . and everybody under- stands this perfectly well.”

On the ground in the restive northwestern province of Idlib, troops have recaptured Idlib city, held for several months by army defectors who have received arms and logistical support from nearby Turkey. Opposition activists reported that the bodies of 45-50 men had been found in a mosque in the city and that rebels killed 12 troops at a checkpoint in Idlib province.

Human Rights Watch said the army was planting mines along the frontier with the aim of preventing Syrian refugees to flee into Tur- key. However, the main objective of the army, which has also mined arms smuggling routes along the Lebanese border, would seem to be to prevent rebels from receiving arms, escaping into Turkey, regrouping and returning to carry out operations inside Syria.

The UN High Commission for Refugees said 30,000 Syrians had fled into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan while the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said 200,000 were internally displaced.

Unicef has denounced reported killings of women and children in Karm al-Zaitoun area of Homs last weekend while Amnesty Inter- national has issued a 44-page report on torture in Syrian prisons, which the organisation claims has reached levels not seen since the regime cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s.