Middle East

Syria election results show support for reforms, says Assad

Syrian women vote in the parliamentary elections on 7 May 2012
Image caption Opposition groups inside and outside Syria called for a boycott of the People's Assembly elections

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that the results of last week's parliamentary elections prove people support his government's reforms.

Mr Assad told Russian TV they also represented a message that Syrians were "not scared by terrorists' threats".

The election commission said on Tuesday that turnout was 51% for the polls, which the opposition said were a farce.

Meanwhile, UN observers who came under fire on Tuesday have been rescued after spending the night with rebel fighters.

UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said other UN personnel had picked up the six-strong team from the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Wednesday and taken them to their team site in Hama.

A commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), Abu Hassan, told Reuters news agency that the observers were "in good health and on their way to Damascus".

The FSA also published video footage showing a UN convoy, including three damaged UN vehicles on flatbed lorries, driving off from the area.

None of the observers was injured in Tuesday's violence in Khan Sheikhoun, which activists said left at least 20 people dead.

The pro-government TV channel Addounia said gunmen had opened fire on the monitors, but the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops had shelled and shot at a funeral procession. The UN blamed an improvised explosive device for the damage to its vehicles.

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Media captionFootage, which has not been independently verified, appears to show the moment of the blast in Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday

The 212 unarmed military observers and 68 civilian staff working for the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) are monitoring the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN envoy Kofi Annan.

A ceasefire was supposed to come into effect on 12 April, but there have been widespread violations by both sides, according to the UN.

On Wednesday, security forces opened fire on a refugee camp for Palestinians and Syrians from the Golan Heights in the southern province of Deraa, killing at least three people and a child, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. But pro-government Ikhbariya TV blamed members of an "armed terrorist group" for the deaths.

The Observatory also reported that at least 15 civilians had been found "summarily executed" in the Shammas district of the central city of Homs.

The group says more than 900 people have died since the truce came into effect, and more than 12,000 since the uprising against President Assad began. In March, the UN put the death toll at 9,000.

'Serious message'

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Syrian Higher Elections Committee, Khalaf al-Izzawi, announced the results of the elections for the 250-seat People's Assembly, which were held amid continuing violence.

Mr Izzawi said the turnout was 51.26% among eligible voters, although he did not give a breakdown of the vote from restive areas such as Homs.

He also did not say how many seats were won by the 10 parties making up the National Progressive Front, an alliance dominated by the ruling Baath Party. However, among the winners were Qadri Jamil and Omar Ossi, who described themselves as opposition figures.

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Media captionPresident Assad speaking to Russia's Rossiya 24: "The Syrian people are not scared by the terrorists who tried to get us to cancel the elections"

The polls were the first held under a new constitution adopted in February, which dropped an article giving the Baath Party unique status as the "leader of the state and society" in Syria. It also allowed new parties to be formed, albeit those not based on religious, tribal, regional, denominational or professional affiliation, nor those based abroad.

On Wednesday, Mr Assad told the Russian state news channel Rossiya 24 that the elections were a "very important step as part of the reforms that we started to implement" after mass protests erupted in March 2011.

"The [returns from the] polling stations reflect the opinion of the people," he said, according to the Russian translation dubbed over his English.

"This is a serious message to everyone, both inside the country and abroad. The Syrian people were not scared by threats from terrorists who tried to thwart the election or to force us to call the election off."

"The results have shown that the Syrian people still support the course for reforms that we announced about a year ago, and that the majority support this system of statehood."

Opposition groups called for a boycott of the elections, dismissing them as a ruse to buy the government more time to crush dissent and noting that no credible voting was feasible in areas under siege.

'Mercenaries'

Mr Assad also said Syrian security forces had captured "foreign mercenaries" who were fighting for the opposition.

"Some of them still alive. They are being detained and we are preparing to show them to the world," he added.

Image caption Activists said the flow of weapons to the Free Syrian Army had significantly increased

Syrian state TV has broadcast what it said were the confessions of a Libyan and two Tunisians who had infiltrated Syria via Turkey to carry out attacks in co-ordination with the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda.

Earlier, opposition activists and US officials told the Washington Post that armed rebels had begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, paid for by Gulf countries and co-ordinated by the US.

Two months ago, the rebels were running out of ammunition, but in the past few weeks the flow of weapons has reportedly significantly increased. Weapons were being stockpiled in Damascus, Idlib province, near Turkey's border, and in the town of Zabadani, near Lebanon's, activists said.

"Large shipments have got through," one opposition figure told the Post. "Some areas are loaded with weapons."

Officials in Washington emphasised the US was neither supplying nor funding the weapons, but were increasing "non-lethal assistance".