Syria holds elections amid fresh violence

Syria-voting
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syria held local elections Monday even as government forces pressed a violent crackdown against dissent and activists reported fresh clashes with insurgents.

The government had promoted the poll as part of a reform process announced in response to months of antigovernment protests. But opposition activists dismissed the vote as irrelevant, saying they wanted nothing short of President Bashar Assad’s removal. 

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said residents “flocked” to the polls. Footage broadcast on state-run television showed busy voting stations in what appeared to be the capital, Damascus, and the business hub of Aleppo, where Assad retains considerable support.

But turnout was expected to be low in large parts of the country where the opposition has its strongholds and violence is escalating. The voting took place on the second day of an open-ended national strike and opposition activists said they would have no part in the polls.

Residents describe parts of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, as resembling a war zone, with armored vehicles rumbling through the streets and daily clashes between government forces and army defectors.

“Homs is surrounded and there is heavy gunfire. How do you think these local elections can be held?” said one activist reached in the city.

The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March, when major protests began inspired by uprisings sweeping through the Arab world. The world body’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, was expected to brief the Security Council about the crisis later Monday.

The government blames the bloodshed on Islamic militants and armed gangs advancing foreign conspiracies, claiming most of the casualties have been members of the army and other security services.

A growing number of defectors and other opposition supporters have taken up arms against the regime in recent months, prompted by the ferocity of the crackdown on what began as mostly peaceful protests.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fresh clashes were reported Monday in the northwestern province of Idlib and in the southern province of Dara.

“This morning security forces came and started surrounding the town from all sides,” said an activist reached in the Dara town of Dael. “We heard gunfire from heavy weaponry ... and they smashed some of the stores that were on strike. There were clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces.”

Independent journalists are mostly barred from reporting in Syria, making it virtually impossible to verify either side’s accounts.

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-- Alexandra Zavis and Alexandra Sandels

Photo: A woman casts her vote in Damascus, Syria, on Monday in municipal elections. The opposition dismissed the polling as irrelevant. Credit: Bassem Tellawi / Associated Press

 
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