Syria conflict: West criticises Assad election plan

The announcement was made in parliament, as Lyse Doucet reports from Damascus

The US has dismissed a Syrian plan to hold a presidential election on 3 June as a "parody of democracy".

UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the plan, saying it could torpedo efforts to broker a deal to end the three-year civil war, which has killed 150,000.

Government forces have made gains recently, but rebels still control vast territories. It is unlikely that voting would be held in those areas.

President Bashar al-Assad is expected to seek a third seven-year term.

The government recently framed an election law that stipulated all candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years.

Such is Syria's deep, dangerous divide that an election makes absolute sense for some, and is profoundly absurd for others.

President Assad has hinted for more than a year that it was his right to run again.

As preparations gathered pace, the opposition slammed this poll as a "parody of democracy". Even the UN envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, diplomatically said that, if it went ahead, the opposition "will probably not be interested in talking to the government".

But the Geneva talks went nowhere. And President Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, have recaptured territory in some strategic areas, including around Damascus.

Fighting is nevertheless intensifying in other areas, like Aleppo, as opposition groups get more and better arms from their backers. It is expected that more mortars will fall on Damascus, and other cities, as rebel fighters show their opposition to a poll they have been unable to stop.

Most opposition leaders have fled the country, so are in effect barred from standing.

Opposition activist Ahmad Alqusair accused Mr Assad of "holding elections over the blood of Syrians" and said only the president's supporters would vote.

"If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote," he told the Associated Press.

One government MP said there would be no voting in rebel-held areas, but no official announcement has yet been made.

The US, EU and UN were united in condemning the planned vote.

"Calling for a de-facto referendum rings especially hollow now as the regime continues to massacre the very electorate it purports to represent," said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Mr Ban warned that it would "damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution".

And both the EU and the US labelled it a "parody of democracy".

Jay Carney, White House spokesperson: "He's making a mockery"

Parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Lahham announced the election, and said overseas Syrians would be able to vote from 28 May.

It is unclear how the government plans to organise voting in contested areas, or how the six million people who have fled their homes could register.

Also, more than 2.7 million Syrians are living as refugees in neighbouring countries, and many other expatriates live in countries where Syrian embassies have been closed since 2011.

The announcement came just hours after mortar shells exploded about 100m (320ft) from the parliament building in central Damascus, killing five people, according to state TV.

Bashar al-Assad in Maaloula (20 April 2014) President Bashar al-Assad has not said publicly whether he will seek a third term
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 21, 2014 shows Syrians holding their national flags and a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally Syria state media showed images of Assad supporters rallying in Damascus
Men inspect a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by pro-Assad forces in the Dahra Awad neighbourhood of Aleppo April 20 Bomb attacks and hardship remain an everyday reality for many Syrians
Chemical attack claim

President Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 and was re-elected in 2007, taking 98% of the vote in a referendum.

He has not said publicly whether he will stand, however, no-one doubts that he will seek a third term, says the BBC's Lyse Doucet in Damascus.

Amendments to the constitution approved in a widely criticised referendum in 2012 mean that there can be multiple candidates in the election.

But our correspondent says it is unlikely that anyone will seriously challenge Mr Assad.

In a separate development, Ms Psaki also said that the US was investigating reports that a rebel-held area had been targeted with chemical weapons.

French President Francois Hollande said on Sunday that he had "information" but no proof suggesting pro-Assad forces were still using chemical weapons.

The government has agreed to complete its handover of chemical stockpiles by next Sunday.

Mr Assad agreed to the move after hundreds of people died in an attack outside Damascus last year.

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