Fighting between the opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's forces erupted in an oil producing province in eastern Syria on the eve of parliamentary elections, residents and activists have said.
Fighters with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the east of the provincial capital Deir al-Zor on Sunday in response to an army offensive against towns and villages in the tribal area bordering Iraq, they said.
"We do not have a death toll because no one is daring to go into the streets," said Ghaith Abdelsalam, an opposition activist who lives near Ghassan Abboud roundabout that has become a flashpoint for the fighting in the city.
"The population has been trapped and anger has been building up," he said, adding the fighting subsided early in the morning after erupting overnight.
The army still has tanks and heavy weapons in cities and towns in violation of ceasefire being monitored by a UN team and rebels are continuing their guerrilla attacks on military convoys and army roadblocks that have cut off swathes of the country, according to witnesses and opposition sources.
Fifty out of a planned total of 300 UN observers are now in Syria to monitor the ceasefire declared on April 12, but their presence has not halted 14 months of violence.
The authorities say they are fighting what they call foreign-backed terrorists in Deir al-Zor and across the country who are bent on sabotaging what state media describe as a comprehensive reform programme being led by Assad. They are touting Monday's election as a showcase of these reforms.
However, the opposition says it will change little in a rubberstamp assembly that has been chosen by the ruling Assad family, backed by the powerful secret police, for the past four decades.
Exiled opposition figures have urged voters to boycott the election and some groups in Syria announced the formation of an "alternative" parliament.
"We are against these elections because they don't have any of the characteristics of free elections," said Haytham Manna, head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, one of the main opposition groups.
"It's a kind of joke. It is a kind of propaganda from the regime," said Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer and former senior member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella for several opposition factions. "The real opposition will not go to vote."
Manna spoke on Sunday from Brussels and Maleh from London.
The "alternative" parliament initiative "came to meet the popular will, and to fill the constitutional vacuum after the revolution brought down the legitimacy of (President Bashar) al-Assad's regime," according to an opposition statement reported by the Asharq al-Awsat pan-Arab newspaper.
"Revolutionaries inside Syria announce the formation of a temporary parliament, which decided in its first meeting to cancel the current constitution and restore the 1950 constitution," it said.
'Act of defiance'
Meanwhile, the authorities made final preparations for a vote it says is crucial for building "the new Syria" but which the opposition has already dismissed as a "farce."
Information Minister Adnan Mahmud said that voting on Monday was an act of defiance.
"By taking part in the election, Syrians are defying the campaign of terrorism and aggression led by international and regional parties implicated in a terrorist war against our country," he said in a statement.
The election will be Syria's first multi-party polls since the adoption in February by referendum of a new constitution that ended the five-decade stranglehold on power by the ruling Baath party.
Nine parties have been created, and seven have candidates vying for a parliamentary seat.
Pro-government parties led by the Baath are represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
A total of 7,195 candidates have registered to stand for the 250 seats, state news agency SANA said.
But experts believe little will change politically in Syria, where a tenuous UN-backed ceasefire that came into effect on April 12 has failed to take hold.
"The elections are a step in a void and will not lead to any change in the political landscape and security of Syria," Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, said.
It is taking place "amid a lack of security, continued killings and violence... while (many) are detained, suffering or displaced," Rantawi said, dismissing the elections as "media propaganda".
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|William A. Cook|