Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday as President Bashar al-Assad's government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.
Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar also told a press conference that turnout reached 57.4 percent of eligible voters, with 89.4 percent of the 8.376 million who cast their ballots in Sunday’s referendum saying “yes” to the new constitution.
“There has been a large turnout despite threats made by armed terrorist groups in some regions,” the minister said, using a term employed by the authorities for rebels.
People went to polling stations “despite campaigns by treacherous media to stop citizens from exercising their rights and undermine the democratic process that took place freely and transparently,” he added.
The opposition had called for a boycott of the referendum, while the United States described it as “laughable”.
The United States said Syria’s referendum for a new constitution is “absolutely cynical.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asked how a democratic process could take place in the country while Syrian government guns and tanks were still firing.
“We dismiss it (the referendum) as absolutely cynical,” Nuland told reporters. .
“Essentially what he’s done here is put a piece of paper that he controls to a vote that he controls so that he can try to maintain control,” Nuland said.
“Even the referendum that they put forward is ridiculous in the sense that it requires that the state approve any of these patriotic opposition groups. So he’s going to hand pick who gets to be in the opposition and who doesn’t,” she said.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton predicted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will eventually fall when enough soldiers, business leaders and minorities desert him.
“I think the regime will fall.... I am not a fortuneteller. I cannot tell you when that will happen,” Clinton said in an interview Sunday with Morocco’s 2M television channel during a visit to the Moroccan capital Rabat.
“But the Syrian army, which is largely a conscript army, is not going to continue to carry out these brutal assaults on the Syrian people,” the chief U.S. diplomat said, according to a transcript of the interview released Monday.
Homs bombarded again
Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect.
“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city. “The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets.”
Meanwhile armed men killed 68 people in the countryside of the rebel central province of Homs with gunfire and knives, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They were killed with knives and gunfire, said the head of the monitoring group.
Arming the opposition
In other news, Qatar’s prime minister said Monday he was in favor of delivering arms to the Syrian opposition that is battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“We should do whatever necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani said during an official visit to Norway.
“This uprising in Syria now (has lasted) one year. For 10 months, it was peaceful: nobody was carrying weapons, nobody was doing anything. And Bashar continued killing them,” he told a news conference.
“So I think they’re right to defend themselves by weapons and I think we should help these people by all means,” he added.
More than 7,600 people have been killed in violence across Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Qatari prime minister also reiterated that his country was in favor of sending an international peacekeeping force to Syria, with an Arab “core”.
“The Security Council failed to take responsibilities to stop the killing,” he lamented, adding: “We believe that the Arabs (are) capable (of doing) that.”
“We need (an international) coalition, but the core of the coalition should be an Arab force,” Al-Thani said.
At the beginning of the month, Russia and China blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s crackdown.
Last week in Tunis, a “Friends of Syria” international conference, in which Moscow and Beijing refused to take part, discussed several ways to help opponents of Assad’s regime but put off a decision on sending a joint Arab League-U.N. peacekeeping force.
Diplomats and U.N. officials said former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva on Monday with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and France’s Alain Juppe.
Annan met Salehi for about 20 minutes and was due to see Juppe later on Monday at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, before leaving for New York on Wednesday, a U.N. official told Reuters.
The two foreign ministers were in the Swiss city to address the U.N. Human Rights Council, which will hold an emergency debate on Tuesday on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on a popular uprising.
Iran is one of Assad’s few remaining allies while France has taken a prominent role in international efforts to isolate him to stop the bloodshed.
Annan was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby last Thursday as joint special envoy on Syria.
In his first statement on Friday, Annan called for the full cooperation of all parties and stakeholders to help bring an end to Syria’s violence and human rights abuses.
Annan, U.N. chief from 1997 through 2006, brings global stature and experience in conflict resolution to his new job, but averting a long and bloody civil war in Syria that could further destabilize the Middle East may be impossible.