Violence kills 31 as Syrians vote on new constitution


EXPLOSIONS YESTERDAY rocked contested quarters of several Syrian cities as residents of peaceful cities, towns and villages voted on a new constitution providing for multi-party parliamentary elections.

After casting his ballot, President Bashar al-Assad vowed Syria "will win" against the campaign being waged against his government.

Opposition activists said 31 people, including 10 soldiers, were killed in embattled districts of Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zor and Deraa.

Voting for the country's 14.6 million eligible voters out of a population of 23 million took place from 7am to 10pm local time at 14,185 polling stations in spite of violence that killed 5,400 people last year, according to a UN estimate, and continues to take a high daily toll.

The new constitution, which ends the domination of the Baath party, has divided the country, setting Syrians who fully or partially support the document against those who wanted a more democratic text and outright opponents who condemn holding a referendum while people are dying in rebel strongholds.

Two opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change, called for a boycott; others declared a strike which was not observed widely. Opponents contend that if the new constitution is adopted, Dr Assad, who took power in 2000, could serve another two seven-year terms in command of the military while exercising executive and legislative powers.

While Damascenes streamed into polling stations, local spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh said the the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) continue to negotiate with the government and rebel fighters to gain access to the Bab Amr quarter of Homs and evacuate wounded civilians and two journalists injured last week during heavy shelling.

Seven wounded and 20 sick people were rescued by a SARC ambulance on Friday but the journalists, Frenchwoman Edith Bouvier and Briton Paul Conroy, reportedly refused to depart with the SARC.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the vote "a cynical ploy. It's a phoney referendum, and it is going to be used by Assad to justify what he is doing to . . . Syrian citizens." She criticised businessmen and military personnel who continue to support Dr Assad. "If you refuse ... to prop up the regime or take part in attacks [ against it] your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes."

Having made this appeal, she warned against foreign intervention that could "expedite" all-out civil war.