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Monday 19 March 2018

Mortar blast hits Assad poll rally

Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari speaks after a Security Council vote on referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court (AP)
Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari speaks after a Security Council vote on referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court (AP)

A mortar shell has struck an election gathering in southern Syria for president Bashar Assad, killing a number of people, state media and opposition activists reported.

The state-run Sana news agency confirmed the mortar strike in Daraa and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said the shelling targeted an "electoral tent" where Assad supporters had gathered, and killed 21 people including 11 civilians.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Rebels trying to overthrow Assad frequently fire mortars into Syria's major cities, including capital Damascus, from opposition-held suburbs.

The attack underscores concerns that rebels will step up attacks against government strongholds in the run-up to the country's presidential election on June 3.

Public gatherings by Assad supporters are being held, often in tents, in some government-controlled parts of the country ahead of the vote. Assad is widely expected to win a third seven-year mandate in a vote criticised by the West and opposition groups as a sham.

Assad, rarely seen in public since the start of Syria's three-year-old conflict, has not been seen campaigning since he announced the poll last month and was not at the gathering in Daraa, where the uprising against his rule began.

More than 160,000 people have been killed since as the revolt morphed into a civil war which has sent millions fleeing and turned once-prosperous cities into rubble-strewn war zones.

Assad's family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Though this year's vote will be the first time the family has faced challengers as opposed to a yes-or-no vote on their rule, a recently passed election law makes it impossible for those leading the revolt against Assad to compete.

He was last seen in public on April 20 when Syrian state television broadcast images of him visiting the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, north of Damascus. Government forces recently recaptured the town, part of a series of major advances ahead of the vote.

The attack came hours after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes.

This is the fourth time Russia and China have used their veto power as permanent council members to deflect action against the government of Assad.

The 13 other council members voted in favour of the resolution, and m ore than 60 countries signed on to support the French-drafted measure, in a dramatic demonstration of international backing for justice in the conflict.

The resolution would have referred Syria's crisis, now in its fourth year, to the world's permanent war crimes tribunal for investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, without specifically targeting either the government or the opposition.

Also y esterday, Syrian tanks backed by massive air power rolled into the grounds of a sprawling prison in the northern city of Aleppo, breaking a year-long rebel siege and allowing Assad's forces to close in on a nearby rebel command centre.

Aleppo is Syria's largest city and has been carved up into government and rebel-held areas since the opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012.

Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Daraa, said rebels from the Free Syrian Army umbrella group fired a mortar shell at the tent in a government-held area after repeatedly warning civilians to stay away.

He said there were about 100 people in the tent, including members of pro-Assad militias, officers and employees. More than 25 people were killed in the attack which "set the tent ablaze and sent shrapnel flying everywhere", he said.

Mr Masalma said the mood was celebratory at the tents, festooned with posters of Assad and Syrian flags.

"They have loud music and Dabka," he said, referring to a traditional foot-stomping dance. "It's very provocative."

Press Association

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