Also: audio of UN observer spokesman Neeraj Singh in APTN feed below
VIDEO: AP and Reuters feeds attached below; shot lists in asset manager
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Syrian voters choose a new parliament Monday in the country's first multi-party elections, as violence between government and opposition forces rages on across the country.
Authorities are praising the vote as a major reform. But opposition activists are calling it a farce for coinciding with a violent government crackdown on a popular uprising.
The elections are being boycotted by those who have risen up against President Bashar al-Assad and dismissed as a distraction by the opposition in exile and the countries demanding that he step down. They say it is yet another attempt for the government to buy time, the way it agreed to an Arab League peace plan that languished, or signed on to a U.N. effort in April only now getting under way.
Syrian election officials say a total of 7,195 candidates — many from at least seven new political parties — are participating in the polls for the 250-seat assembly, ending the 40-year monopoly on power by Mr. Assad's ruling Baath party, a political concession to the popular uprising. A new constitution approved in a February referendum — another concession to the protesters — allowed the creation of opposition parties to compete with the Baath-led National Progressive Front.
A spokeswoman for Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told VOA that the parliamentary elections are an “insult to democracy.” Bassma Kodmani said the government is “killing every day” in centers of the 14-month rebellion against Mr. Assad's autocratic rule. She said the only people who will vote in such an environment are those who are “forced” to do so.
Kodmani also dismissed the involvement of new political parties in the election, calling them “creations of the regime.” She said Syria's opposition movement remains outside of any legal institutions and continues to take to the streets to make itself heard.
Syrian government and rebel forces have continued daily attacks on each other despite a U.N.-backed truce agreement that took effect last month. Opposition activists reported fighting between the two sides in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour Sunday and said at least five people were killed in clashes across the country.
A U.N. team deployed in Syria to monitor the truce said the number of observer personnel has risen to 70, with the contingent set to reach 300 by the end of May. The observers toured several towns around Damascus, meeting Syrian troops, inspecting military vehicles and talking to residents in Zabadani and Madaya.
Also Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a Syrian refugee camp inside Turkey. Mr. Erdogan told the crowd “victory for Syria's rebellion is not far.” He said “Bashar is losing blood every day.”
Ankara has been one of the strongest regional critics of the Assad government's suppression of the revolt. Turkey is home to about 23,000 Syrian refugees and hosts Syrian rebel soldiers and opposition activists.