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Some Syrians Vote, as Others Are Attacked

BEIRUTSyrians voted in a referendum on a new constitution, as Homs city remained under artillery attack, in a stark display of the divide between President Bashar al-Assad's support base and his opponents.

Sunday's vote came as Mr. Assad rejected a new round of international pressure to yield power, simultaneously pursuing political overhaulswhich the opposition has long rejected as insufficientand a deadly crackdown on dissidents. Syria holds a referendum on a new constitution as the government continues its onslaught on Homs and other towns. (Video: Reuters/Photo: Getty Images) Activists on Sunday boycotted the vote on the draft constitution, one in a series of steps Mr. Assad has pledged to open up a political system dominated by the ruling Baath Party since 1963 and his own family since 1970. Amid a four-week bombardment of Homs with heavy artillery, activists hardly heeded the voteexcept with rage and humor. In a neighborhood just outside the capital Damascus, they burned tires and set up roadblocks to protest the referendum. In the southern cities around Deraa, they called a general strike that shut down shops and schools. And in towns across the country, they filmed video skits mocking the process and what they portrayed as a government attempt to overshadow its violent crackdown with gestures at a political overhaul.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voted in a referendum for a new constitution on Sunday that could keep him in power until 2028. (Video: Reuters/Photo: AP) "From what I can hear from my bunker, I think the only thing dropping into the ballot boxes, if they're there, are bombs," said an activist in Homs. He spoke by Skype via a satellite connection amid an electricity blackout and what he said was shelling across Homs, including the city center for the first time on Sunday. But in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two largest cities and strongholds of support for the president, many young Syrians said they took part in the vote. Syrian state media broadcast scenes of a large rally in the capital supporting the new constitution, and of Syrians voting at polling stations across the country. State TV also showed Mr. Assad and his wife voting at a station after making their way through a crowd of cheering people, who flung their arms at the president and snapped pictures of him with their cellphones. Enlarge Image

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A Syrian woman shows a referendum pamphlet explaining the changes to be made to the constitution at a polling station in Damascus on Sunday. Amir Bitar, a 29-year-old graduate student who voted in Damascus, said the new constitution "is a good step forward, even with the many mishaps it has.""I think this constitution provides the basis for constructive debate later." Others described a good turnout at polling stations in Damascus, where one voter said "it felt like a loyalist demonstration." "Everyone was smiling and holding pictures of the president," the voter said. The draft constitution would loosen the ruling Baath Party's grip on political power and pave the way for multiparty elections, while also capping Syria's executive term for the first time in decades. Opposition activists say the document is flawed, as it bans most traditional opposition groups and dissidents from taking part in both parliamentary and presidential elections.

The vote came after a "Friends of Syria" contact group of more than 60 nations meeting in Tunis on Friday backed an Arab plan calling on Mr. Assad to cede power, and pledged to prepare to deliver emergency humanitarian aid into Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clintonwho joined foreign ministers from the Arab League, France, the U.K., and others at Friday's meeting on Syriaurged Syrians in the military and business community still backing Mr. 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 on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. "If you refuse, however, to prop up the regime or take part in attacks your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes." Western officials at the meeting in Tunis said they still sought a negotiated, political solution on Syria to avoid a bloody, protracted civil warthat could engulf the region.Across the country, at least 40 people were killed by government forces on Sunday, according to activist groups. Even the leading Syrian opposition coalition dropped its total refusal to negotiate with regime officials, as long as negotiations start after a cease-fire and with the strict goal of regime change. In a statement in Tunis, the Syrian National Council said political negotiation "is still possible and is likely the best way to achieve the desired goal of regime change." A senior council member on Sunday said many in the opposition, and among their Western backers, acknowledge that Russia holds considerably political sway over the Assad regime and had to be courted to help move along a transition in Syria. "We know we can't do anything without them," the council member said. In Homs, activists pleaded for emergency aid and the International Committee of the Red Crosswhich is negotiating for a cease-fire in Syriasaid its team couldn't enter the besieged city over the weekend to help evacuate the injured. "Just water and medicineforget food," one Homs resident said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights separately said 23 members of the military or security forces were killed in clashes with, or in targeted attacks by, opposition fighters. The right's group's local affiliate, the Syrian Red Crescent, on Friday evacuated 27 people from Homs. Activists said two injured foreign journalists trapped in the Baba Amr neighborhood refused to leave with the Syrian organization and were waiting for a rescue team. "We are attempting to go in the affected area again today," said Hicham Hassan, the Syrian Observatory's spokesman for the Middle East. "Needs are very urgent and it is absolutely crucial that we are able to enter."