Syrian President Bashar Assad said the media was largely responsible for hostilities against the regime in Damascus, as he cast his vote along with his wife Asma in on a new constitution that could keep Assad in power until 2028. At the same time, at least 31 people were reportedly killed in cities across Syria as government troops continued in its crackdown on the opposition.
Syrian state TV showed footage of the Syrian president struggling to reach the ballot box but hindered by flocks of cheering employees. The pleasant atmosphere followed Assad, who has been battling an increasingly militant opposition for nearly a year, into the ballot box where he voted behind a closed curtain.
Addressing a crowd after the vote, Assad declared that "the attack on us is a media assault," the British Telegraph
website quoted the Syrian president as saying.
"It is true the media is important, but it does not beat reality," he said, praising Syrian official news as "the best" in comparison with other countries.
Assad was likely referring to what officials in Damascus have claimed are attempts by foreign countries, including Arab nations, to manipulate the events in Syria in favor of the opposition.
Meanwhile, at least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in fighting over Syria's future that coincided with the referendum.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military bombardment of opposition districts in Homs, now in its fourth week, had killed nine civilians, while rebel fighters had killed four soldiers in clashes in the city.
The British-based Observatory said eight civilians and 10 members of the security forces were killed in violence elsewhere in Syria, scene of what has become an increasingly militarized revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.
Voting was under way in the referendum on a new constitution, which Assad says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months, but his opponents see as a sick joke given Syria's turmoil.
The Interior Ministry acknowledged obliquely that security conditions had disrupted voting, saying: "The referendum on a new constitution is taking place in a normal way in most provinces so far, with a large turnout, except in some areas."
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, China and Iran, and undeterred by Western and Arab pressure to halt the carnage, says it is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups."'No desire for reform'
Prime Minister Adel Safar, asked about opposition calls for a boycott, said this showed a lack of interest in dialogue.
"There are some groups that have a Western and foreign agenda and do not want reforms in Syria and want to divert Syria's steadfastness," he told reporters in Damascus.
"We are not concerned with this. We care about ... spreading democracy and freedom in the country," Safar said.
"If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition, to start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the referendum was "nothing but a farce."
"Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition," he said in a statement.Harrowing conditions in Homs
The military onslaught on parts of Homs has created harrowing conditions for civilians, rebels and journalists.
A video posted by activists on YouTube showed Mohammad al-Mohammad, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Baba Amro, holding a 15-year-old boy hit in the neck by shrapnel and spitting blood.
"It is late at night and Baba Amro is still being bombarded. We can do nothing for this boy," said the doctor, who has also been treating Western journalists wounded in the city.
American correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the bombardment of Homs last week and two other Western journalists were wounded. The group is still trapped there despite Red Cross efforts to extricate them.
An International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman said Sunday that Syrian authorities have still not responded to a request for a ceaasefire to allow the wounded to be evacuated from the Baba Amro district of Homs.
"The ICRC did not receive an answer yet from the Syrian authorities. The current situation in Baba Amro and other areas affected by the violence is precisely why the ICRC made this request for a two-hour daily halt in the fighting," spokeswoman Carla Haddad said.
"The situation is worsening by the hour and people must get help immediately."
In Hama, another city with a bloody record of resistance to Baathist rule, one activist said nobody was taking part in the referendum. "We will not vote on a constitution drafted by our killer," he said by satellite telephone, asking not to be named.
If the constitution is approved in the vote, a foregone conclusion, it would drop an article making Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.
But the limit will not be enforced retrospectively, meaning that Assad, already in power for 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.
This is Syria's third referendum since Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent 'Yes' vote. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 percent in favor.