Syria referendum goes ahead amid military onslaught

BEIRUT (Reuters) – At least 59 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed yesterday in bloodshed that coincided with a vote on a new constitution that could keep President Bashar al-Assad in power until 2028.

Assad says the referendum shows his commitment to democratic reform while Western powers and Syrians involved in an 11-month-old revolt against his rule have described it as a farce.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military bombardment of opposition districts in the city of Homs had killed 12 civilians while security forces killed three people when they opened fire on a demonstration in Damascus.

The British-based Observatory said 21 other civilians died and rebels killed 23 members of the security forces across Syria, scene of what has become an increasingly militarised revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.

Voting took place in the referendum on a new constitution, which Assad says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months. The result is expected to be announced today.

“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or by bullets? This is the only choice we have,” said Waleed Fares, an activist in the Khalidiyah district of Homs, where bombardment is now in its fourth week.

“We have been trapped in our houses for 23 days. We cannot go out, except into some alleys. Markets, schools and government buildings are closed, and there is very little movement on the streets because of snipers,” he said.

He said another besieged and battered district, Baba Amro, had had no food or water for three days. “Homs in general has no electricity for 18 hours a day.” Tight curbs on independent reporting in Syria make witness reports hard to verify.

Elsewhere in Homs, rebel fighters burned a building of Assad’s ruling Baath Party in the Hamidiyeh district of the old city and attacked an armoured vehicle, the Observatory said.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged obliquely that security conditions had disrupted voting, saying: “The referendum on a new constitution is taking place in a normal way in most provinces so far, with a large turnout, except in some areas.”

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