West calls Syrian referendum a ‘sham’

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria‘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.

The Red Cross spokesman said the humanitarian group had been unable to enter the besieged Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr since Friday, describing the humanitarian needs there as “very urgent.”

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

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Sunday’s vote “a cynical ploy.”

“It’s a phony referendum, and it is going to be used by Assad to justify what he’s doing to other Syrian citizens,” she said in an interview with CBS News in Rabat, Morocco.

Speaking to reporters in Rabat, Mrs. Clinton called on Syrians in business and the military who still support Mr. Assad to turn against him.

“The longer you support the regime’s campaign of violence against your brothers and sisters, the more it will stain your honor,” she said. “If you refuse, however, to prop up the regime or take part in attacks … your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes.”

Other countries also lambasted the vote.

“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.

For his part, Mr. Assad said Sunday that Syria is subject to a “media attack.” He often blames the uprising on Islamist extremists and “armed gangs.”

“They may be stronger on the airwaves, but we are stronger on the ground, and we aspire to win both on the ground and on the airwaves,” he said in footage broadcast on Syrian state TV. Cheering supporters surrounded him and his wife, Asma, as they voted at the capital’s state broadcasting headquarters.

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.

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