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Syria OKs new constitution as shelling continues


A rebel aims his rifle from inside the classroom of a school in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday.

A referendum in Syria that overwhelmingly approved a new constitution was "unlikely to be credible," the United Nations said on Monday as it urged the country to focus on bringing an end to its bloodiest turmoil in decades.

The Syrian Interior Ministry said on Monday that a reformed constitution, which could keep President Bashar Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than eight million voters who cast their ballots on Sunday.

"While a new constitution and the end of the Baath party monopoly on power could be part of a political solution, a referendum must take place in conditions free of violence and intimidation," U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters.

"It is unlikely to be credible in the context of pervasive violence and mass human rights violations," he said.

Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday's vote, conducted amid ongoing violence, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Earlier on Monday, Syrian artillery pummeled rebel-held areas of Homs before the announcement that a vote had approved a new constitution proposed by President Assad.

A Syrian activist group said Monday that 135 people have been killed across the country, including 64 who died while fleeing an embattled area in Homs. The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main Syrian activist groups, said the dead included three women, three children and four soldiers.

No clear successor to Assad's 'coup-proof' rule in Syria

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad's forces try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

"Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amr and the old city at dawn," opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

"The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets," he said, adding that at least two people had been killed.

Syria referendum goes ahead amid violence

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later at least seven people had been killed by shelling in Baba Amr. The accounts of opposition activists were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.

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 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could enable Assad to keep power until 2028.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.

"We are still in negotiations. Since the beginning, the objective has been to go in and evacuate people and bring in assistance. Every hour, every day makes a difference," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.

New sanctions
European Union foreign ministers, meanwhile, agreed new sanctions against Assad's government on Monday, targeting its central bank and several cabinet ministers to try to curb funding for the government.

The measures, expected to be enforced this week, include prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with Syrian state institutions and a ban on cargo flights from Syria, officials said.

Syrian activist: 'You hear the sounds of torture all the time'

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions were crucial to putting pressure on Assad to end violence that has killed thousands of civilians over the last 11 months.

"I hope we will agree further sanctions today which will further restrict the access to finance in particular of the regime," Hague told reporters before the meeting.

Echoing comments by other ministers, Hague said any military involvement in Syria to lend support to anti-Assad rebels was off the table for now, even in the form of a peacekeeping force that some Arab states appear to favour.

"Of course for that to work properly there would have to be a peace to keep. At the moment we don't have that," he said.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said sanctions were the most the EU could do for now, saying it was the best that could be done without military intervention.

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.