Syrians vote in tense election

Posted Dec. 12, 2011, at 8:51 p.m.

BEIRUT — Local elections were held across on Syria on Monday even as opposition activists said government forces were continuing their violent crackdown against dissent and clashing with insurgents.

President Bashar Assad’s government had promoted the poll as part of a series of reforms in response to months of anti-government protests, saying steps had been taken to allow more people to run and to avoid fraud. But opposition activists dismissed Monday’s vote as a charade, saying they wanted nothing short of Assad’s removal.

As many as 21 people were killed Monday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that collects casualty information from around the country.

Independent journalists are mostly barred from reporting in Syria, making it difficult to assess the level of daily violence or participation in the election, which took place on the second day of an opposition-organized general strike.

State-run media published images of busy polling stations that appeared to be in the capital, Damascus, and the business hub of Aleppo, saying Syrians across the country had “flocked” to vote. More than 42,000 candidates were vying for 17,588 seats on 1,337 local administrative councils, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

A strong turnout would suggest support for Assad’s reform process, which he has pledged will include parliamentary elections next year and constitutional changes to open up the country’s tightly controlled political process. Prime Minister Adel Safar called on Syrians to vote and “stand together to save our country from the conspiracies against us.”

“I voted because we want to contribute to the reforms and choose the best” candidates, a Damascus resident who gave her name as Zeina told the French news agency AFP.

But turnout was believed to be low in parts of the country where the opposition has major strongholds and violence has been escalating.

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.

The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March, when major protests began that were inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab world. The government has blamed the bloodshed on Islamist 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 government in recent months, prompted by the ferocity of its crackdown on what began as mostly peaceful protests.

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