Heavy fighting rocks eastern Syria ahead of poll


Fighting between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces erupted in an oil producing province in eastern Syria, residents and activists said on Sunday, the eve of a parliamentary election the authorities say shows reforms are under way.
Rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the east of the provincial capital Deir al-Zor, 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,” said Ghaith Abdelsalam, an opposition activist who lives near Ghassan Abboud roundabout that has become a flashpoint for the fighting in the city.
“The population has been trapped and anger has been building up,” he said, adding the fighting subsided early in the morning after erupting overnight. The army still has tanks and heavy weapons in cities and towns in violation of ceasefire being monitored by a U.N. team and rebels are continuing their guerrilla attacks on military convoys and army roadblocks that have cut off swathes of the country, according to witnesses and opposition sources.
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 authorities say they are fighting what they call foreign backed terrorists in Deir al-Zor and across the country who are bent on sabotaging what state media describe as a comprehensive reform programme being led by Assad that is more advanced than in Western democracies.
The authorities are touting Monday’s parliamentary election as a showcase of these reforms. However, the opposition says it will change little in a rubberstamp assembly that has been chosen by the ruling Assad family, backed by the powerful secret police, for the past four decades.
“NOTHING CHANGED”: The assembly currently does not have a single opposition member and official media said half the seats would be reserved to “representatives of workers and peasants”, whose unions are controlled by Assad’s Baath Party.
“Nothing has changed. Syria’s political system remains utterly corrupt and election results will be again determined in advance,” said opposition activist Bassam Ishaq, who unsuccessfully ran for parliament in 2003 and 2007.
“There are effectively very few seats for independents, and these will go to the highest bidder.”
Interior Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar toured the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, and declared Syria’s commercial and industrial hub was ready for the vote. “All resources should be made available to ensure the electoral process proceeds smoothly,” Shaar, flanked by electoral officials, told state media.