Campaigning in Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election began yesterday as al-Qaeda-linked insurgents continued to cut water supplies to Aleppo, once the country's most populous city.
President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win by a landslide in the June 3rd poll, standing against two largely unknown rivals, legislator Maher Hajjar and Damascus businessman Hassan al-Nuri, members of domestic opposition groups.
Posters of all three candidates have gone up in government-held areas across the country, with those portraying Dr Assad dominating.
'Brink of crisis'
The UK-based neutral civil society organisation Madani reports that Aleppo is "on the brink of a humanitarian crisis" following a week-long disruption by fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra of water supplies to government- and insurgent-held areas of the city.
Last month the Jabhat cut electricity to the city and the surrounding countryside.
Residents have been forced to queue at wells to collect contaminated water, risking outbreaks of disease common in summer.
The organisation called for all sides to adhere to a ceasefire agreement proposed last month by the “People of Aleppo Initiative” and to restore water and power.
Christians celebrated Mass at the vandalised Syriac Orthodox St Mary Church of the Holy Belt, the oldest in Syria, in the ancient city of Homs as hundreds of civilians flooded back following last week's evacuation by insurgents under a deal brokered by their leaders and the government.
Most buildings have been pierced by bullets and breached by shells, and many have been reduced to rubble or gutted by fires set by some of the 1,200 insurgents before they departed in buses for opposition-held towns 20km to the north.
Homs's Greek Orthodox bishop George Abu Zakhim said the situation in the Christian quarter was "catastrophic", with all 11 churches heavily damaged or destroyed.
He said jihadis had set a fire in the sixth-century Greek Orthodox St Elian Church, blackening icons centuries old.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled the eastern province of Deir al-Zor due to fighting between the Jabhat and rival Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), an al-Qaeda rogue offshoot, over the past 11 days that has killed 230 militants.
In an admission that it is recruiting children, a pro-Isis Twitter account has carried a photo of boys lined up outside a registration office for the group in the town of al-Bab in rural Aleppo province.
The Isis has been engaged in fierce fighting near al-Bab with the Jabhat and other jihadi groups which have driven most Isis fighters from the province.