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Syrians vote as U.N. says death toll climbs over 5,000

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Syrians voted on Monday in municipal elections as security forces pushed a deadly crackdown on dissent that the United Nations said has killed nearly 5,000 people.

As regime opponents piled on the pressure with a second day of strikes, the head of the elections committee, Khalaf al-Ezzawi, said “voting is proceeding in a democratic spirit,” and that the turnout was “good.”

There were no further details.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 15 people were killed in the flashpoint regions of Homs and Idlib, adding to a newly issued UN toll for the number of people who have died in the nine-month crackdown on dissent.

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown, more than 14,000 detained and 12,400 have fled to neighbouring countries.

On the ground, meanwhile, strikes were observed near Damascus and in Daraa, cradle of the protests against Assad's regime, as part of a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience launched on Sunday.

But despite the uprising and strike action, the regime pressed ahead with the municipal elections, in which 14 million Syrians can vote for 2,889 candidates vying for 17,588 seats.

Information Minister Adnan Mahmud told AFP the elections were part of a package of promised democratic reforms and would be followed by legislative polls in February.

“These elections are taking place on time in line with a reform program,” Mahmud told AFP.

“They are taking place although some are trying, in vain, to stop them through terrorist acts carried out by armed groups who are terrorising the citizens,” he said.

Activists, meanwhile, mocked the election on their Facebook page.

“The election farce organised by the authorities was a failure in the city of Deir Ezzor where we think the turnout was no more than one percent. The roads were empty the whole day,” an activist said of the vote in the eastern city.

Last week, Syria's local administration minister, Omar Ghalawanji, said a special indelible ink would be used for the first time in the municipal elections “to prevent any fraud.”

“I voted because we want to contribute to the reforms (pledged by Assad) and choose the best” candidates, said Zeina, a 35-year-old woman, as she emerged from a polling state in the central Ummayad Square of Damascus.

Ahmad, a pro-regime taxi driver, said the vote was essential “as a response to those calling for a strike.”

But a regime opponent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he did not expect a huge turnout.

“I am surprised that elections are taking place under such circumstances,” he said. “Cities gripped by the uprising are not concerned by these elections.”

He said he expected voting to be limited to areas where protests have been scarce or non-existent, including Syria's second city of Aleppo.

The Britain-based Observatory said authorities “forced dozens of people” in Idlib to vote despite raging violence in the northwestern province where forces killed three people in an early morning raid.

Fifteen people were killed by gunfire or shrapnel on Monday, with 10 of the deaths happening in Homs province, including a boy, said the Observatory.

Four people were also killed by security forces in Idlib province near the Turkish border and seven others wounded, the group said, and a 30-year-old man was killed in the Hama region, which like Homs lies in central Syria.

It also reported army deserters have been locked in heavy clashes since dawn with regular troops in two Idlib villages and that similar fighting was also raging in Daraa province.

The opposition Syrian National Council said the “dignity” general strike launched Sunday was widely observed in 12 provinces against “all expectations.”

The Observatory said the strike was observed for the second consecutive day in Daraa and also in the restive Damascus suburb of Douma.