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Syria referendum goes ahead amid military onslaught

As violence turns to war in Syria, the country votes on a referendum that would limit the government's powers. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

At least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in bloodshed 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 constitution which Assad says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months, but which his opponents see as a sick joke given the unrest convulsing the country.

 

"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.

At least 89 were reported killed on Saturday, one day before the referendum. Activists estimate close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on dissent began.

Read: Is Syria's vote a chance for democracy or trick by Assad?

"The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. "Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Syrians in business and the military who still support Assad to turn against him.

"The longer you support the regime's campaign of violence against your brothers and sisters, the more it will stain your honor," she told reporters in Morocco. "If you refuse, however, to prop up the regime or take part in attacks ... your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes."

U.S., European and Arab officials met Friday at a major international conference on the Syrian crisis in Tunisia, trying to forge a unified strategy to push Assad from power. They began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls.

"It is time for that regime to move on," President Barack Obama said Friday of Assad's rule. On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad's crackdown belied promised reforms.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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