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Syria says new constitution received overwhelming support

BEIRUT — Amid reports of fresh atrocities in the besieged city of Homs, the Syrian government said Monday that an overwhelming majority of voters — 89 percent — had approved a new constitution that's billed as President Bashar Assad's most serious concession yet in the nearly year-old uprising against his rule.

Opposition activists, backed by the Free Syrian Army guerrilla movement, rejected the results and vowed to continue their fight to end the Assad dynasty's four-decade hold on the country. They renewed their calls for foreign assistance such as weapons and "safe zones" along the borders, saying that the bloodshed of the past year renders moot any more regime promises of reform.

The results, however, bolstered Assad's support from China and Russia, the two nations that had vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution earlier this month that called for new sanctions on Assad.

"The referendum has confirmed that the course for change is supported by the people," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The statement added that the referendum showed that support for Assad's opposition was "limited" and the rebels had "no exclusive right to speak on behalf of the Syrian people."

"We hope that all sides in Syria work together and exert coordinated efforts to ease the tension as soon as possible," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing, news agencies reported.

The likelihood of a peaceful resolution seemed to recede, however, as the Syrian army continued to shell Homs, and key Arab leaders called for sending weapons to beleaguered rebel forces.

An opposition activist, reached via an Internet hookup, reported that 64 men had been executed overnight after they fled Homs' Baba Amr neighborhood with their families. The activist said that when the families reached a security checkpoint, the men were loaded onto buses and driven away. Their bodies were found later. The whereabouts of the women and children were unknown, the activist said.

The organizing group Avaaz, which has trained many of the so-called citizen journalists in Homs, gave a similar account, saying "at least 62 men" had been killed.

Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said during a state visit to Norway that he supported delivering arms to the opposition forces "to defend themselves."

"I think they're right to defend themselves by weapons and I think we should help these people by all means," Thani was quoted as saying in news reports.

SANA, the official Syrian government news service, reported Monday that arms already are making their way to rebel strongholds. SANA said government forces had seized 40 "explosive devices" outside the city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan, and reported that border officers had intercepted weapons shipments from Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. One of the shipments included 106 rifles, two sniper rifles and large amounts of ammunition.

Opposition activists typically dismiss such claims as regime propaganda, though they make no secret of their desire for more weapons and ammunitions to better hold their slivers of "liberated" territory and mount offensives on the much superior weapons of Assad's forces. Government forces have deployed tanks and troops to battle insurgents in urban residential areas.

Meanwhile, Saleh Dabbakeh, the spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said in a phone interview that aid workers had entered the hard-hit city of Hama for the first time in 40 days, delivering food, blankets and other goods. He said the opening encouraged the group and that it hoped to negotiate similar entry for convoys headed to other flash-point cities such as Idlib and Homs.

But he declined to discuss the ICRC's efforts to enter the devastated Baba Amr district in Homs, where, in addition to many trapped Syrian injured, two Western journalists, wounded in an attack last week, are pleading for safe passage.

The ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent have been negotiating for four days to gain access to the area. Friday, a small number of wounded Syrians were rescued when the Syrian military stopped its shelling.

But a deal for a larger evacuation, including the wounded journalists and the bodies of two other Western journalists who were killed in the same attack, remains elusive. Dabbakeh called the search for an agreement complicated.

"It's not only the government side. It takes two to tango," Dabbakeh said. "People inside Baba Amr have to guarantee their agreement as well. We can't send convoys in if we can't assure their safety. We keep talking to everybody."

In Damascus, the government trumpeted the results of Sunday's referendum as proof that a majority of Syrians support an internal reform plan rather than armed rebellion to force long-awaited democratic changes.

Syrian Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed al Shaar told journalists in Damascus that 8.3 million voters, about 57 percent of those eligible, had voted in the referendum, SANA said.

How much the new constitution's 157 articles would reform the autocratic system Assad inherited from his late father, the notoriously iron-fisted Hafez Assad, is hotly disputed.

In a significant change, the ruling Baath Party isn't mentioned anywhere in the document. But the new constitution is filled with contradictions and loopholes that in effect would make ending one-party rule difficult, at best.

One article, for example, says a parliamentary body holds legislative authority, while another says the president can dismiss the body "by a reasoned decision issued by him."

The contradictions, however, didn't deter hundreds of thousands of Syrians from voting Sunday, if the turnout figures SANA reported are accurate. A McClatchy special correspondent, whose name is withheld for security reasons, saw long lines of enthusiastic voters at polling places throughout the capital.

Many said they preferred the reforms as a first step toward more democratic rule because they had little trust in the fragmented, fledgling opposition and even less in the shadowy armed rebel forces. Few displayed sympathy for the besieged protesters the regime portrays as "armed terrorist groups."

"Why didn't he start bombing them from the beginning?" one voter lamented.


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