Syria holds local elections as deadly clashes reportedly continue

Local elections were held across Syria on Monday even as opposition activists said government forces were continuing their violent crackdown against dissent and clashing with insurgents.

President Bashar Assad's government had promoted the poll as part of a series of reforms in response to months of anti-government protests, saying steps had been taken to allow more people to run and to avoid fraud. But opposition activists dismissed Monday's vote as a charade, saying they wanted nothing short of Assad's removal.

The United Nation's top human rights official, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council on Monday that more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, when major anti-government protests began that were inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab world. She told reporters she had recommended that the council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for investigation of possible war crimes.

The government has blamed the bloodshed on Islamic militants and armed gangs advancing foreign conspiracies, claiming most of the casualties have been members of the army and other security services.

As many as 21 people were killed Monday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that collects casualty information from around the country. Independent journalists are mostly barred from reporting in Syria, making it difficult to assess the level of daily violence or participation in the election, which took place on the second day of an opposition-organized general strike.

State-run media published images of busy polling stations that appeared to be in the capital, Damascus, and the business hub of Aleppo, saying Syrians across the country had "flocked" to vote. More than 42,000 candidates were vying for 17,588 seats on 1,337 local administrative councils, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

A strong turnout would suggest support for Assad's reform process, which he has pledged will include parliamentary elections next year and constitutional changes to open up the country's tightly controlled political process. Prime Minister Adel Safar called on Syrians to vote and "stand together to save our country from the conspiracies against us."

"I voted because we want to contribute to the reforms and choose the best" candidates, a Damascus resident who gave her name as Zeina told news agency Agence France-Presse.

But turnout was believed to be low in parts of the country where the opposition has major strongholds and violence has been escalating.

"I don't trust the people who are candidates because they are people backed by the regime and I don't believe they will reform anything in the country," said a Homs resident who for safety reasons asked to be identified only as Renda.

Residents describe parts of Homs, Syria's third-largest city, as resembling a war zone, with armored vehicles rumbling through the streets and daily clashes between government forces and army defectors.

"Homs is surrounded and there is heavy gunfire. How do you think these local elections can be held?" said an activist reached in the city.

The last time Pillay briefed the Security Council, in August, the death toll in Syria was about 2,000. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said Pillay's briefing Monday underscored the need for strong action by the Security Council.

In October, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria, in part they said because it could set the stage for a Libya-style military intervention.

"It is past time for the U.N. Security Council to [act]," Rice said.

A growing number of defectors and other opposition supporters have taken up arms against the government, prompted by the ferocity of its crackdown on what began as mostly peaceful protests.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fresh clashes were reported Monday in the northwestern province of Idlib and in the southern province of Dara.

"This morning security forces came and started surrounding the town from all sides," said an activist reached in the Dara town of Dael. "We heard gunfire from heavy weaponry ... and they smashed some of the stores that were on strike. There were clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces."

Fighting was also reported for a second day around the southern village of Busra al Harir, near the Jordanian border, according to the Local Coordination Committees.

The official news agency said the strike was ineffective and released photographs of open markets and businesses. But amateur footage posted on YouTube showing rows of shuttered stores suggested it was being observed in opposition strongholds, including suburbs of Damascus, the city of Homs and the provinces of Dara and Idlib.

Sandels is a special correspondent.

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