Syria referendum held amid heavy military onslaught

 

Explosions shook several embattled Syrian cities today and at least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed as  polls opened for a vote on a new constitution that could keep President Bashar al-Assad in power until 2028.

Human rights campaigners reported blasts in Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zor, Deraa and some smaller towns caught up in an almost year-long uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.

Voting began at 7am local time in 14,185 polling stations across the country, according to state television, which aired live footage of people waiting to cast ballots. Polls close at

7pm, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported on its web site.

Dr Assad says the referendum will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months, but which his opponents see as a sick joke given the violence convulsing the country.

"No one is going to vote," said activist Omar yesterday from the rebel-held Baba Amro district of Homs, which Assad's forces have bombarded and besieged for more than three weeks.

"This was a constitution made to Bashar's tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed," he said. "More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote?"

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned today of the perils of any foreign intervention.

"I think there is every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it," she told BBC television in an interview.

"We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al Qaeda, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next ...If you bring in automatic weapons, which you can maybe smuggle across the border, what do they do against tanks and heavy artillery? There is such a much more complex set of factors."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the referendum was "nothing but a farce."

"Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition," he said in a statement.

The International Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were unable to gain access to the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs today and were still negotiating with the Syrian authorities and opposition groups, the ICRC said.

"The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent are still negotiating with Syrian authorities and opposition groups. We are attempting to go into the affected area of Baba Amro today," said ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad.She would not say what the stumbling blocks were in negotiations for access to deliver medical care to people trapped in the besieged district.

"We are working in good faith and need consensus of all involved in the violence," she said.

She added that Syrian authorities had still not responded to a request for a ceasefire.

" The current situation in Baba Amro and other areas affected by the violence is precisely why the ICRC made this request for a two-hour daily halt in the fighting," she said.

"The situation is worsening by the hour and people must get help immediately."

Security forces killed at least 100 people, including six women and 10 children, across Syria yesterday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said in a statement.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia, China and Iran, and undeterred by Western and Arab pressure to halt the carnage, says it is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups."

Its onslaught on parts of Homs has created harrowing conditions for civilians and rebels.

A video posted by activists on YouTube showed Mohammad al-Mohammad, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Baba Amro, holding a 15-year-old boy hit in the neck by shrapnel and spitting blood.

"It is late at night and Baba Amro is still being bombarded. We can do nothing for this boy," said the doctor, who has also been treating Western journalists wounded in the city.

American correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the bombardment of Homs last week and other Western journalists in the city were wounded. The group is still trapped there despite Red Cross efforts to extract them.

Despite the violence in provincial cities across Syria, voting on the constitution went ahead in calmer areas.

If approved, it would drop an article making Dr Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.

But the limit will not be enforced retrospectively, meaning that Dr Assad, already in power for 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.

Dozens of people lined up to vote in two polling stations visited by a Reuters journalist in Damascus. "I've come to vote for President Bashar, God protect him and give him victory over his enemies," said Samah Turkmani, in his 50s.

Bassam Haddad, the director of one polling centre, said: "From the beginning the voting has been much better than we expected. We can say 200 percent above expectations."

Another voter, Majed Elias, said: "This is a national duty, whether I agree or not, I have to come and vote... I agree with the draft constitution, even if I object to some parts. Every Syrian must ride the wave of reform to achieve what he wants."

Anti-Assad activists have called for a boycott of a vote they see as meaningless. They said they would try to hold protests near polling stations in Damascus and suburbs where troops drove out insurgents last month.

Some said security forces had stopped people venturing out to buy food in Homs yesterday, confiscated their Interior Ministry-issued identification cards and informed them the cards could be retrieved at specified polling centres the next day.

"They want to force people to vote in this doctored, so-called referendum," activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.

This is Syria's third referendum since Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent 'yes' vote. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 per cent in favour.

Reuters