Syrians vote as violence rages
Damascus - Syrians were voting on Monday in municipal elections even as violence raged in some parts of the country where security forces were pressing a deadly crackdown against dissent.
Opposition activists meanwhile urged citizens to intensify a civil disobedience campaign launched on Sunday in a bid to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Polling stations opened at 08:00 (06:00 GMT), with 42 889 candidates vying for 17 588 seats. Polls were due to close at 20:00 GMT.
One official said there had been an initial low turnout in at least one Damascus centre, where only 61 voters cast their ballots in the first hour or so.
The elections have been organised in line with a new election law designed to "reinforce the principle of decentralisation", according to one official.
Official media quoted the head of the elections committee, Khalaf al-Ezzawi, as saying "the new election law contains the necessary guarantees for a democratic, transparent and honest election".
"I voted because we want to contribute to the reforms [pledged by Assad] and chose the best" candidates, said Zeina, a 35-year-old woman, as she emerged from a polling state in the central Ummayad Square of Damascus.
Ahmad, a pro-regime taxi driver, said the vote was essential "as a response to those calling for a strike".
But a regime opponent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he did not expect a huge turnout.
"I am surprised that elections are taking place under such circumstances," he said. "Cities gripped by the uprising are not concerned by these elections."
The dissident said he expected voting to be limited to areas where protests against the Assad regime have been scarce or non-existent such as Aleppo, Syria's second city and economic hub.
There have been little or no anti-regime protests in large urban areas like Aleppo and in many part of the capital Damascus.
As voting got underway a rights group reported that at least one civilian was shot dead in the province of Idlib by security forces who launched an early-morning raid in the region.
Five people were also wounded in Idlib, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Army deserters were locked in heavy fighting since dawn with regular troops in two Idlib villages, it added.
Similar fighting was also raging on Monday morning in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of nearly nine months of anti-regime dissent, it said.
The opposition Syrian National Council said in a statement that the "dignity" general strike launched on Sunday was widely observed in 12 provinces across Syria against "all expectations".
The SNC urged Syrian citizens from all walks of life as well as labour unions to pursue the strike, saying it was essential "for the success of the revolution and the establishment of a civilian democratic nation".
The general strike is part of a campaign of civil disobedience which also aims to shut down universities, public transport, the civil service and major highways.
Rights groups had earlier reported that at least 13 civilians were killed on Sunday by regime forces, five of them in the flashpoint central province of Homs as fears grew of an "invasion" of the besieged protest hub.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, who has said more than 4 000 people have been killed in the government crackdown on dissent, is to brief the UN Security Council on Syria later on Monday.
The unprecedented protests which erupted in Syria in mid-March initially called for greater freedoms in one of the Arab world's most autocratic country.
But faced with a brutal government crackdown protesters quickly began demanding the fall of the regime, despite repeated promises by Assad to adopt political reforms to appease his detractors.
In August, the embattled president issued a decree authorising a multi-party political system in Syria, which has been ruled with an iron fist by his Baath Party since its foundation in 1963.
And in October, he appointed a committee to draft a new constitution within four months to replace the current one which stipulates that the Baath party is "the leader of state and society".