- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2012

DAMASCUS, SYRIASyria’s authoritarian regime held a referendum on a new constitution Sunday, a gesture by embattled President Bashar Assad to placate those seeking his ouster.

But the opposition deemed it an empty gesture, and the West immediately dismissed the vote as a “sham.”

Even as some cast ballots for what the government has tried to portray as reform, the military kept up shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs, which has been under attack for more than three weeks after rebels took control of some neighborhoods there.

Activists and residents report that hundreds have been killed in Homs in the past few weeks, including two Western journalists.


Activist groups said at least 29 people were killed Sunday, mostly in Homs. At least 89 were reported killed on Saturday alone, one day before the referendum. Activists estimate close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent began.

“The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. “Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition.”

U.S., European and Arab officials met Friday at a major international conference on the Syrian crisis in Tunisia, trying to forge a unified strategy to push Mr. Assad from power. They began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls.

“It is time for that regime to move on,” President Obama said Friday of Mr. Assad’s rule.

On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Mr. Assad’s crackdown belied promised reforms.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense clashes between troops and army defectors in the villages of Dael and Hirak in the province of Daraa, where the uprising started.

The group also said explosions were heard in the village of Khirbet Ghazaleh and Naima as well as the provincial capital, Daraa.

The observatory and other activist groups reported violence in several areas including Idlib, Homs and the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

The two main umbrella opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, have called for a boycott. Other groups have called for a general strike.

“I am boycotting the vote,” Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told the Associated Press by phone. He added that previous “reforms” have made little difference.

Mr. Assad’s government revoked the country’s official state of emergency in April, but the crackdown on dissent has only intensified.

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