Syria puts new constitution to vote in thick of unrest

Syrians were called to the polls today to vote on a new constitution in the face of opposition calls for a boycott and deadly violence that Washington said made the exercise "laughable."

The new text ends the legal basis for the five-decade stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party but leaves huge powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.

The opposition says the changes are cosmetic and that only Assad's ouster will suffice after 11 months of repression by his security forces that human rights groups say have left more than 7,600 people dead.

On Saturday alone, 98 people were killed, 72 of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

As polling was under way, the Britain-based watchdog reported new violence around the country that left 16 civilians and 14 security force personnel dead.

In the central city of Homs -- under assault by regime forces for more than three weeks -- shelling resumed of the rebel district of Baba Amro, dashing Red Cross hopes of a lull to allow the evacuation of two wounded Western journalists.

Syrian state television aired live footage from a number of polling stations around the country and reported that "large number of voters" had turned out.

"I am voting because this is the outcome of reforms introduced by the president, and if they succeed, we will have a democracy, not like in Libya and elsewhere," Balsam Kahila, 32, told AFP after voting in the capital at the finance ministry where she works. Asked whether she thought it was right to hold the referendum in the thick of bloodshed, she said: "I am voting in spite of the armed gangs," using the term employed by the regime to refer to rebel fighters and mutinous troops. 

At the voting centre, many did not bother to use the booth, showing to everyone their choice of "yes" to the new charter.

Outside, at the main Seven Fountains Square, large crowds gathered brandishing Syrian flags as pro-Assad anthems blurred from loudspeakers.

In the southwestern city of Sweida, in the heartland of the Druze minority, Maria, in her forties, said she voted without hesitation in favour of the new constitution, although she said it was not enough.

"We're not stupid. We know that the new text does not meet the aspirations of the people, but voting is a message to support stability and reject the civil war that threatens our country," she said.

"In theory, the new constitution ... opens the way to a multi-party system and to a democratic transition ... The real political battle now is to force those in power to respect the text," said Khaled, a 37-year-old lawyer.

In Homs, no voting appeared to be taking place, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP after touring parts of the city where rebels are active.

"There are no people in the streets. Everything is shut, and there is not a single polling station," he said.

Foreign journalists have very limited freedom of movement in Syria as a result of stringent restrictions imposed by the authorities.

Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month, in the latest step in what he says is a cautious process of reform.

Damascus's allies, Beijing and Moscow, which have blocked action against the regime at the UN Security Council, have expressed support for the process. 

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