Assad certain of crushing win in Syria's controversial presidential vote
Surreal scenes as Syrians in regime-held areas vote as shells rain down
Agence France-Presse in Damascus
Syrians in regime-held areas voted yesterday in a controversial presidential election in which Bashar al-Assad is looking to boost his grip but which the opposition has slammed as a "farce".
Assad is facing two little-known challengers and is expected to win, despite a massive rebellion and a three-year war which the UN has warned is likely to drag on even longer as a result of the vote.
In Damascus, the atmosphere was surreal, with people voting as the sound of shelling and explosions punctuated pro-Assad songs playing in the streets.
Activists in flashpoint areas said the violence raged, with rebels raining mortars on parts of the capital firmly under government control and the air force striking opposition areas.
Assad and his British-born wife Asma cast their ballots in central Damascus.
Billboards glorifying Assad cover the streets of Damascus although inside polling stations photographs of his two challengers - Hassan al-Nuri and Maher al-Hajjar - had been put up alongside the president's.
There was no voting in the roughly 60 per cent of the country outside government control, including large areas of second city Aleppo. Polling was held in the heart of third city Homs, in ruins after rebel forces pulled out last month following a devastating two-year siege.
At least 162,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad's rule erupted in March 2011, and nearly half the population have fled their homes.
None of the voters questioned said they had voted for Assad's opponents. Nadia Hazim said she would "vote for the president - of course".
Hind al-Homsi, 46, said she had sliced a small cut in her finger and left a bloody fingerprint on the circle underneath Assad's name. "I want to vote in blood for the president. He is the best," she said.
After casting his vote in a Damascus hotel, nominal challenger Nuri said: "I think today's Syria is the new Syria, the victorious."
In the central city of Homs, security forces deployed in strength a day after a truck bomb killed 10 people in the nearby countryside.
The interior ministry said more than 15 million Syrians were eligible to take part in the poll, on top of the 200,000 who voted abroad last week.
Assad allies Iran, North Korea and Russia sent observers to monitor the election, but the opposition and Nato have both dubbed it a "farce".
The vote "does not fulfil international standards for free, fair and transparent elections and I am sure no [Nato] ally will recognise the outcome of these socalled elections", Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
There was not let-up in the army's attacks on rebel-held areas, with air strikes pounding the towns of Daraya southwest of Damascus and Douma to its northeast, and fighting flaring east of the capital, activists said.
The United Nations says the poll will only complicate efforts to relaunch peace talks after two rounds of abortive negotiations.
The exiled opposition has made Assad's departure from power a precondition for any negotiated settlement and his re-election for a new seven-year term is likely to scupper any hope of getting them back to the negotiating table any time soon.
"Dictators are not elected, they hold power by force and fear - the only motivations that Syrians have to show up for this charade," opposition chief Ahmed Jarba wrote in the Washington Post.