BEIRUT: Syria’s Baath Party urged voters to elect President Bashar Assad to a new seven-year term in the country’s first multicandidate election Tuesday, amid growing fears that the poll will see rebel attacks targeting polling stations in regime-held areas.
Opposition sources said that both civilian opposition groups in the city of Aleppo and rebel militias based there have issued warnings to people to stay home on June 3, when Assad faces a lightly regarded challenge by two political unknowns.
Both Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, have seen regular mortar bomb attacks on regime-held neighborhoods in recent weeks and months. Pro-regime Mayadeen television said 23 people were killed Sunday in rebel mortar bomb attacks against regime-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, and scores wounded. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said at least six people were killed and a number of people were injured in the incidents.
The Baath Party said in a statement that by choosing Assad, Syrians would be voting “for a leader ... who confronts the war ... for the iconic leader Bashar Assad, who has stayed at the side of his people in all corners of the homeland.”
Separately, state television broadcast a live meeting of Sunni religious scholars who also urged voters to cast their ballots for Assad, who is running against MP Maher Hajjar and ex-Minister Hassan Nouri.
Syria’s electoral commission announced that campaigning should be halted as of Monday morning, and said 95 percent of registered expatriate voters took part in the polls last week.“The chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s central electoral committee said that voting took place in 43 embassies of the Syrian Arab Republic, and the participation rate by registered voters exceeded 95 percent,” state news agency SANA said.
The opposition and its backers have slammed the vote as a “farce” and as a “parody of democracy.”
Inside Syria, voting will only take place in regime-held areas, and those who fled the country’s violence through unofficial border crossings are not allowed to participate.
Damascus has said its nationals in countries that back the opposition, including the United Arab Emirates and France, were preventing people from voting.
Syria’s deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad Saturday accused those countries of “violating all conventions and human rights.”
On the eve of the vote, pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan had said more than 200,000 people had registered at 39 Syrian Embassies abroad.
SANA said the results of the expatriate voting would be announced along with the final result of the poll.
In Syria, fighting continued to rage on more than half a dozen fronts, and rebels in Aleppo Sunday fired mortar bombs at regime-held neighborhoods, killing two people, according to the Observatory.
Regime airstrikes also targeted several neighborhoods of the northern city while fierce fighting raged on the southeastern outskirts of the city, where rebels have disabled three regime tanks.
At least 20 regime troops were killed Saturday when Islamist rebels planted explosives in a tunnel under an army position in Aleppo, the Observatory said. “Islamist rebels detonated a tunnel near the Zahrawi market in the Old City of Aleppo, killing at least 20 army soldiers and pro-regime militiamen.”
Fighting broke out after the explosion, and at least one rebel was killed, it added.
The attack was claimed by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance which groups thousands of fighters across the strife-torn country.
It posted a link to a video on its Twitter account, showing a huge blast throwing a massive cloud of debris up into the air.
In recent weeks, the Islamic Front has frequently used tunnels to plant massive amounts of explosives beneath army positions.
The tactic has been used mainly in Aleppo and neighboring Idlib provinces.
The latest blast came a day after the Observatory said some 2,000 people have been killed since January in regime bombing of rebel-held areas of Aleppo city and nearby towns and villages.
State news agency SANA, meanwhile, said regime troops discovered and destroyed a 300-meter-long tunnel linking the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Harasta, killing an unspecified number of “terrorists” inside.
SANA said the tunnel, equipped with “ventilation and lighting,” was used to transport weapons, ammunition, equipment and supplies to help ‘in the carrying out of terrorist attacks,” the government’s blanket term for the insurgency.
In the east of the country, a campaign by rebel and jihadist groups also continued to rage, with the Observatory reporting that 18 militants from ISIS, an Al-Qaeda splinter group, were killed in clashes with the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and its Islamist rebel allies.
The fighting took place in the city of Deir al-Zor and at least two other locations in the province, it said.
An activist also reported that the Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered 14 trucks of food aid Saturday to Raqqa province, much of which is held by ISIS.
“The aid that arrived is by no means sufficient to feed the families here, who suffer from terrible poverty,” activist Abu Ibrahim from Raqqa said.