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Syria holds elections; opposition denounces them as 'farce'


A Syrian official checks the identification of individuals before they vote in the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Damascus on Monday.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. ET: Polls opened in what Syria's government said were its first multiparty elections in about 50 years on Monday, after renewed fighting between rebels and President Bashar Assad's forces reportedly broke out in an oil-producing part of the country.

The opposition have said the election will change little in a rubber-stamp assembly that has been chosen by the Assad family, backed by the powerful secret police, for the past four decades. 

The voting for Syria's 250 member parliament is unlikely to affect the course of Syria's popular uprising, which began 13 months ago with anti-Assad protests. The regime has violently cracked down on dissent and many in the opposition have armed themselves, pushing the country toward civil war.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. and Syrian state TV showed voters lining up and dropping white ballots in large, plastic boxes. Election officials say more than 7,000 candidates are competing seats in the legislature in a country of almost 15 million eligible voters out of a population of 24 million.

The elections are the first under a new constitution, adopted three months ago. The charter for the first time allows the formation of political parties to compete with Assad's ruling Baath party and limits the president to two seven-year terms.

Some members of the opposition remained skeptical.

Stories of atrocities carried out by Syrian government forces shortly before the ceasefire began are emerging. ITV's John Irvine reports from Taftanaz, Northern Syria, where 60 people were massacred in one day.

"Syria's political system remains utterly corrupt and election results will be again determined in advance," opposition activist Bassam Ishaq, who unsuccessfully ran for parliament in 2003 and 2007, told Reuters.  "There are effectively very few seats for independents, and these will go to the highest bidder."

Significant and important members of the opposition were also not able to participate in the elections, Abdulwahab Sayed-Omar, spokesman for British Solidarity for Syria, told msnbc.com.

"Arguably the most prominent political opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "(But) not only is it banned and illegal, but people who support it get the death penalty."

Bashar al-Haraki, a member of opposition Syrian National Council, told the BBC the elections were a "farce which an be added to the regime's masquerade."

While the opposition have dismissed the vote as a sham, authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed terrorists who are bent on sabotaging what state media describe as a reform program that is more advanced than in Western democracies.

Backed by old ally Russia, and with support from Iran's clerical Shiite rulers, Assad, who belongs to Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has relied on the Alawite-dominated military to try to put down the uprising against his repressive rule. 

Unlike the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, who have been toppled by Arab Spring revolts, Assad has retained enough support among the military and among his Alawite sect, which dominates the army and security apparatus, to withstand the popular revolt. 

A suicide bomber has killed nine people including security officers at a Damascus mosque. It is another blow to the U.N.-brokered truce between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting for his downfall. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

Population 'trapped'
Rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the east of the provincial capital Deir al-Zor on Sunday, in response to an army offensive against towns and villages in the tribal area bordering Iraq that has killed tens of people and stopped others reaching supplies and medical care, they said. 

"We do not have a death toll because no one is daring to go into the streets," Ghaith Abdelsalam, an opposition activist who lives near Ghassan Abboud roundabout that has become a flash-point for the fighting in the city, told Reuters. 

"The population has been trapped and anger has been building up," he said, adding the fighting subsided in the morning after erupting overnight. 

The army still has tanks and heavy weapons in cities and towns and rebels are continuing their attacks on military convoys and army roadblocks that have cut off swathes of the country, according to witnesses and opposition sources, both sides in violation of ceasefire being monitored by a U.N. team.

Bold move as Syria leader makes time for chess

Fifty out of a planned total of 300 U.N. observers are now in Syria to monitor the ceasefire declared on April 12, but their presence has not halted 14 months of violence. The United Nations says 9,000 have been killed during the crackdown.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition organisation that documents the violence, said Assad's forces killed three people on Sunday, including Ali Arnous, a young man in the town of Tel north of Damascus. 

A YouTube video showed thousands of people marching at Arnous's funeral, chanting "Raise your head high, father of the martyr," and carrying a huge green Syrian flag from the era before Assad's Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup. 

ITV's Bill Neely reports from both sides of the frontlines in Syria.  Each side accuses the other of the same crimes and neither is willing to stop fighting.

A grave containing the bodies of six other people the network said were killed by Assad's forces was discovered in Oram al-Joz, one of dozens of towns and villages in Idlib, which has been overrun by the military in the past few months. 

Footage and accounts by activists are hard to verify conclusively because the government restricts media access. 

Also on Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees on Sunday that victory for the rebels was not far off and that Assad was "losing blood" by the day. 

Erdogan, who is trying to rally international support against Assad, was met with enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Long live Erodgan" at the Kilis camp on Turkey's border with Syria, which is sheltering 9,000 refugees from the violence. 

"Your victory is not far. We have just one issue: to stop the bloodshed and tears and for the Syrian people's demands to be met," he told the crowd. 

Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report. 

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