Syrians Head To The Polls, Violence Continues

Syrians vote on a new draft constitution Sunday though the opposition has called for a boycott. Violence has been reported across the country. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Peter Kenyon about the latest on the bombardment of Homs and other developments in Syria.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Voters are heading to the polls in Syria today, casting ballots on constitutional reforms the government hails as a major step forward.

But the opposition is calling for a boycott. And activists in besieged cities, including Homs, say the reforms can't undo the damage caused by the government's bloody crackdown on dissent. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following events from Beirut.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: If you had asked Syrian pro-democracy activists a little over a year ago whether they thought President Bashar al-Assad's Baath Party would give up its legal monopoly on political power, and implement term limits for the president, they probably would have sighed and said someday, God willing. Now, those reforms are likely to be approved - as well as others that on paper, present a new and improved Syria.

But the events of the past year have many both inside and outside the country saying that these changes, at this time, are too little and far too late to restore trust in the government. Turnout should be fairly strong in Damascus, where Assad retains a base of support, and in some minority districts elsewhere in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

KENYON: But just outside the capital, protesters took to the streets, demanding Assad's ouster. Opposition figures say changes on paper mean nothing without a new leadership, noting that torture is banned under the current constitution but still happens, they say, far too frequently. With an estimated 6,000-plus dead already, the shelling and shooting continues from Daraa in the south, to Idlib in the north.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO FROM HOMS)

KENYON: In the embattled central city of Homs, this video appeared to show a fresh round of shelling today. The Red Cross, after a brief cease-fire Friday, has failed to convince the authorities to stop the assault long enough to bring wounded Syrians and Western journalists to safety.

An activist using the name Karim Abu Rabia told NPR that in the face of such brutality, the promise of constitutional reform means nothing.

KARIM ABU RABIA: (Through Translator) The new constitution only represents the same repressive regime. It shows their contempt for the Syrian people. We don't want them or their constitution - not the new one, not the old one. They should just go.

KENYON: British and French officials say they're doing everything possible to try to bring the foreign journalists and other Syrians out of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs. But they report only sporadic communications and so far, no success.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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