More than 50 people were killed in Syria on Sunday as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continued their offensive against opposition groups amid a vote on a new constitution that Washington named a "laughable" exercise.
As polling was under way, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported new violence around the country that left dozens of civilians and security forces dead.
In the central city of Homs – under assault by regime forces for more than three weeks – shelling resumed of the rebel district of Baba Amr, dashing Red Cross hopes of a lull to allow the evacuation of two wounded Western journalists.
France's Interior Minister Claude Gueant warned it was "medically urgent" to get wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier out of the besieged district.
Syrian state television aired live footage from a number of polling stations around the country and reported that "large number of voters" had turned out. Voting is due to end at 07:00 pm (1700 GMT).
"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, according to Reuters.
"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."
In Homs, no voting appeared to be taking place, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP after touring parts of the city where rebels are active.
"There are no people in the streets. Everything is shut, and there is not a single polling station," he said.
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."
"No desire for reform"
Prime Minister Adel Safar, asked about opposition calls for a boycott, said this showed a lack of interest in dialogue.
"There are some groups that have a Western and foreign agenda and do not want reforms in Syria and want to divert Syria's steadfastness," he told reporters in Damascus.
"We are not concerned with this. We care about ... spreading democracy and freedom in the country," Safar said.
"If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition, to start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground."
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.
Damascus's allies, Beijing and Moscow, which have blocked action against the regime at the U.N. Security Council, have expressed support for the process.
"We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said in Damascus earlier this month.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "It's actually quite laughable – it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.
"Promises of reforms have usually been followed by an increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria."
Drawn up by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, the new charter would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes the president's Baath party "the head of state and society."
Instead, the new political system would be based on "pluralism," although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.
Under the new charter, the president would keep his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the premier and government and, in some cases, could veto legislation.
Article 88 states that the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state, set for 2014.
Assad could therefore theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.
Syria specialist Thomas Pierret has said that regardless of the changes, the type of political system is of little relevance in a country "dominated by the intelligence service."
"Nothing indicates that this would change under the current regime," said Pierret, lecturer on Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh.
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