Syria vote goes ahead amid onslaught
Beirut - At least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in fighting over Syria's future that coincided with a vote on a new constitution that could keep President Bashar al-Assad in power until 2028.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military bombardment of opposition districts in Homs, now in its fourth week, had killed nine civilians, while rebel fighters had killed four soldiers in clashes in the city.
The British-based Observatory said eight civilians and 10 members of the security forces were killed in violence elsewhere in Syria, scene of what has become an increasingly militarised revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.
Voting was under way in the referendum on a new constitution, which Assad says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months, but his opponents see as a sick joke given Syria's turmoil.
"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.
"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." With most foreign reporters barred from Syria or heavily restricted, witness reports are hard to verify.
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."
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, China and Iran, and undeterred by Western and Arab pressure to halt the carnage, says it is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups".
The outside world has been powerless to restrain Assad's drive to crush the 11-month-old revolt, which has the potential to slide into a sectarian conflict between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and the president's minority Alawite sect.
Unwilling to intervene militarily and unable to get the UN Security Council to act in the teeth of Russian and Chinese opposition, Western powers have imposed their own sanctions on Syria and backed an Arab League call for Assad to step down.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Sunday of the perils of any foreign intervention.
"I think there is every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it," she told BBC television in an interview.
"We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: Al-Qaeda, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next ...
"If you bring in automatic weapons, which you can maybe smuggle across the border, what do they do against tanks and heavy artillery? There is such a much more complex set of factors."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the referendum was "nothing but a farce".
"Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition," he said in a statement.
If the constitution is approved in the vote, a foregone conclusion, it would drop an article making Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.
But the limit will not be enforced retrospectively, meaning that Assad, already in power for 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.