Syria’s first presidential election -- after constitutional amendments did away with the old referendum system -- will be held amid violence that has killed 150,000 people since March 2011.

DAMASCUS // Syria said on Monday it will hold presidential elections expected to return President Bashar Al Assad to office on June 3, despite a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people.

Underlining the ongoing violence in the country, mortar fire hit near the parliament building shortly before the election date was announced, killing two people.

Syria’s first presidential election -- after constitutional amendments did away with the old referendum system -- will be held amid violence that has killed 150,000 people since March 2011, according to one monitoring group.

Parliament speaker Mohammad Al Lahham announced the election date at a special session, saying Syrians living outside the country would vote May 28 and candidates would be able to register to run from Tuesday until May 1.

Mr Al Lahham said voting would be “free and fair... and under full judicial supervision”.

He urged Syrians “to give voice to their will through the ballot box and participate in the democratic process by electing whoever they think is most able to lead Syria to victory.”

“We are confident that you will grant your support... to whoever is worthy of leading and defending Syria, protecting its sovereignty and principles and ensuring a safer future where all Syrians enjoy their rights without distinction,” he added.

Mr Al Assad, who became president after his father Hafez died in 2000 and whose current term ends on July 17, is widely expected to run and win another seven-year term in office despite the conflict.

New election rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the last decade, effectively preventing key opposition figures in exile from standing for office.

The opposition has criticised plans to hold presidential elections and insists that Mr Al Assad should step down and have no role in Syria’s future.

Much of the international community has also warned Syria against holding the vote, with UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi saying it could close the door to future peace negotiations.

It remains unclear how Syria’s government will organise an election under the current circumstances, with swathes of the country out of its control and nearly half the population displaced.

Syria’s conflict began with peaceful protests demanding democratic reform but soon escalated into a civil war after the government launched a massive crackdown on dissent.

Violence continues in many parts of the country, even reaching into the heart of the capital, which has regularly come mortar fire from opposition fighters on the outskirts.

A security source said mortar fire in Damascus was expected to increase during the electoral period.

“They will increase the fire this month to try to undermine the election,” he said, referring to opposition fighters.

Syrian government forces were meanwhile on the offensive in the central city in Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes were continuing in the Bab Hud and Juret Al Shiyah districts.

Both rebel-held neighbourhoods have been under government siege for nearly two years.

In the northern city of Aleppo meanwhile, activists said regime aircraft dropped explosive-packed barrel bombs on several districts, a day after 52 civilians were killed in air raids across the province of the same name.

The Observatory, a Britain-based group relying on sources inside Syria, said 14 children were among those killed in regime aerial bombardment of the province on Sunday.

Mohammed Wissam, an activist in Aleppo city, said the barrel bomb strikes on Sunday targeted crowded areas of Syria’s former economic hub.

“They only dropped 10 barrel bombs on Aleppo city yesterday, but they targeted the markets,” he said.

“Some people also burned to death, because one of the strikes hit a fuel depot.”

Syria’s air force has staged near-daily air raids against opposition areas of Aleppo since late last year, forcing thousands of families to flee the city.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: April 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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