A woman dips her finger in a bottle of ink after casting her vote, near election papers showing pictures of the candidates, at a polling centre in Damascus yesterday.
Syrians voted as fighting raged yesterday in a presidential election in which Bashar al-Assad is looking to tighten his grip as his forces battle rebels in a devastating three-year war.
Assad is facing two little-known challengers and is expected to win, despite a massive rebellion and a war which the UN has warned is likely to drag on even longer as a result of the vote.
In Damascus, the atmosphere was surreal, with people voting as the sound of shelling and explosions punctuated pro-Assad songs heard playing in the streets.
Activists in flashpoint areas said the violence raged, with rebels raining mortars on parts of the capital firmly under government control and the air force striking opposition areas.
Assad and his British-born wife Asma cast their ballots in central Damascus, the president wearing a dark blue suit, the first lady a white blouse, a black business skirt and stiletto heels.
Billboards glorifying Assad cover the streets of Damascus although inside polling stations photographs of his two challengers—Hassan al-Nuri and Maher al-Hajjar—had been put up alongside the president’s.
There was no voting in the roughly 60% of the country outside government control, including large areas of second city Aleppo.
Polling was held in the heart of third city Homs, in ruins after rebel forces pulled out last month following a destructive two-year siege.
At least 162,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, and nearly half the population have fled their homes.
In the central city of Homs, security forces deployed in strength a day after a truck bomb killed 10 people in the nearby countryside.
The government said more than 15mn Syrians were eligible to take part in the election, on top of the 200,000 who voted abroad last week.
Assad allies Iran, North Korea and Russia sent observers to monitor the election, but the opposition and Nato have both dubbed it a “farce”.
The vote “does not fulfil international standards for free, fair and transparent elections and I am sure no (Nato) ally will recognise the outcome of these so-called elections”, said the head of the military alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights meanwhile said security forces across the country “forced people to close their shops and to hang pictures of Assad on the shop windows”.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman added: “Fear of the regime, and specifically the threat of detention for non-voters, is pushing people to vote.”
Despite the vote, there was no let-up in army attacks on rebel areas, with air raids pounding the towns of Daraya southwest of Damascus and Douma to its northeast, and fighting flaring east of the capital, activists said.
The United Nations has warned the election will only complicate efforts to relaunch peace talks.
US slams poll as ‘a disgrace’
The United States yesterday denounced Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s attempt to shore up his authority by staging presidential elections in the middle of a brutal civil war. “Today’s presidential election in Syria is a disgrace,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “Assad has no more credibility today than he did yesterday.” The election had “intentionally denied millions of Syrians the right to vote”, Harf said, adding the Syrian regime “continues to massacre the very electorate it purports to represent and protect”.
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