BEIRUT Prime Minister Adel Safar urged Syrians to vote in local elections on Monday to save the nation from "conspiracies against us" but activists struggling to oust President Bashar-al Assad rejected the ballot as irrelevant at a time of violent unrest.
As voting began, security forces battled pro-opposition army defectors in clashes that are starting to eclipse the campaign of peaceful street protest that began the uprising against Assad nine months ago, raising fears that Syria is drifting into civil war.
Monday also saw the second day of the opposition's "Strike for Dignity," widely supported in protest strongholds around the country and which activists say security forces have tried to break by force and threats.
It was unclear what turnout was like in cities such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, where many residents have been too scared by violence to leave their homes in recent days.
Four people were reported killed on Monday by security forces in Homs province, where the government says it is fighting "armed terrorist gangs" controlled from abroad. The state news agency SANA said the army killed one rebel, wounded others and arrested a leader.
One person was killed and seven wounded in Idlib when they were fired on by security forces. Tanks fired on Sunni districts in Homs, where the strike held and voting was largely boycotted, residents said. A 14-year-old boy was killed by shrapnel.
NO SCHOOL UNIFORM
Safar urged voters to "stand together to save our country from the conspiracies against us." SANA said: "Syrians all over the country flocked to election polls" in 9,849 centers.
Opposition activists said security forces were forcing people to go to the polls in Idlib province. Explosions and heavy machinegun fire were reported in Jabal Zawiya in Idlib.
In Damascus, an engineer said his daughter was asked to go to her school which is serving as polling centre. She was told to wear regular clothes, not her school uniform.
"It seems that they want to film the students as voters because turnout is very low," he said.
Ayman Thamer, an anti-Assad activist and veteran election watcher, said the real turnout in municipal elections traditionally has not exceeded 10 percent because the poll like other elections in Syria is seen as rigged.
"People showed up at polling stations in the pro-regime districts," Thamer said.
Assad, whose minority Alawite family has held power over majority Sunni Muslim Syria for four decades, faces the most serious challenge to his 11-year rule from the wave of protests which erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18.
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His government said the polls are part of a process of reform leading to a parliamentary election next year and constitutional reform. But critics say the election has little significance as municipal officials have few powers in a centralized autocratic government.
Assad is a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighboring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel. He has said reforms cannot be rushed in Syria, where his Baath Party has held a monopoly on power.
Syrian authorities say they are carrying out reforms and that protesters include people with legitimate demands but also include "outlaws" and "terrorists."
CIVIL WAR OR CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Activists said fighting erupted in the southern town of Dael when security forces moved in to break up the strike.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported clashes between deserters and the army in parts of northern Idlib province, where at least three civilians were shot dead by the security forces.
Though the strike has found support in protest strongholds it has not taken hold in central parts of the capital Damascus or the business hub of Aleppo.
Assad has been widely condemned abroad for a crackdown on peaceful protests, which the United Nations says has led to the death of over 4,000 people. His government says more than 1,100 members of the army, police, security and intelligence services have been killed.
Activists want the strike to take hold, boosting the number of Syrians prepared to oppose the government through civil disobedience rather than armed confrontation, which they fear could lead to civil war and play into the hands of Assad.
"The cost will be more human lives I am afraid. But it is less costly than an armed uprising and the regime dragging the country into a Libya-type scenario," said Rima Fleihan, a member of the foreign-based opposition Syrian National Council.
SANA said the strike was a failure. It published an 8-page report with pictures of busy shops and markets.
"The markets in Syrian provinces had normal movement yesterday ... despite incitement by foreign-linked terrorist groups to stop economic and social activity," it said.
Syria has barred most independent journalists, making it difficult to gauge the extent of violence, the strike, or participation in elections.
(Addtional reporting by Dominic Evans, writing by Douglas Hamilton, editing by Peter Millership)