DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrians cast ballots Monday in parliamentary elections billed by the regime as key to President Bashar Assad's political reforms, but the opposition dismissed the vote as a sham meant to preserve his autocratic rule.
There were scattered reports of violence, including accounts from activists and witnesses that security forces launched deadly attacks on villages in central Syria where opposition supporters were refusing to vote. The reports could not be indepedently confirmed.
The voting for Syria's 250-member parliament is unlikely to affect the course of Syria's popular uprising, which began 14 months ago with largely peaceful protests. The regime responded with a violent crackdown, pushing many in the opposition to take up arms.
The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's turmoil, which many observers fear is rapidly descending into a civil war.
Voters lined up and dropped white ballots in large, plastic boxes after polls opened at 7 a.m. Election officials say more than 7,000 candidates are competing seats in the legislature in a country of almost 15 million eligible voters out of a population of 24 million.
The opposition has called the elections a farce and says it will accept nothing short of the fall of Assad's regime.
As the voting got under way, regime forces stormed several poor farming villages in central Syria where residents were boycotting the elections, shooting randomly and torching homes, two witnesses said. One resident who asked to be identified only by his first name, Zakariya, said at least four people in his village of Qabr Fidda were killed — including a father and his two daughters, who were burned alive.
"They also shot at people who fled in to the farms but we don't know anything about what happened to them," Zakariya told The Associated Press by telephone from the village, 30 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Hama.
Another resident of Qabr Fidda, Mohammed Abu Sair, said he fled to a nearby area with four of his neighbors who had been shot. He said the attack appeared to be because the village observed a general strike and no one went to vote.
"They threatened the government employees three days ago, telling them to bring their relatives to the polling centers," he said. The village had a large protest Sunday and no one went to vote on Monday, he said.
As he spoke, a car carrying the body of a man killed in shelling of a neighborhing village, al-Twainey, arrived, he said.
The Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist group, also reported regime attacks in the area. The accounts could not be independently verified.
The elections are the first under a new constitution, adopted three months ago. The charter for the first time allows the formation of political parties to compete with Assad's ruling Baath party and limits the president to two seven-year terms.
In recent weeks, candidates' photographs and banners have adorned the capital, Damascus, in what regime supporters say is a sign of burgeoning reform in a country ruled by a single family for more than four decades. But critics are deeply skeptical, saying the vote — and the candidates — have been orchestrated by the government.
"The face of the regime will not change," said activist Mousab Alhamadee, speaking on Skype from the central city of Hama. "The regime is like a very old woman, a woman in her 70s, trying to put on makeup."
Assad has made a series of gestures toward reform to try to allay the crisis, but his opponents say his efforts are too little, too late. Monday's vote had been postponed several times, most recently after the constitutional referendum in February allowed new political parties to run.
The parliament is not considered an influential body in Syria, where the real power is concentrated around Assad and a tight coterie of family and advisers. Experts say that despite the legal changes, Syria's oppressive security services keep true regime opponents from participating in politics.
Some voters said they hoped the process would bring change. Damascus voter Hind Khalil, 23, said she'd vote for some independent candidates as well as members of the new parties.
"They have fresh ideas that might bring in change," she said. "I hope that they will work for the welfare of the country and for combatting corruption and bribery."
Alhamadee, the activist in Hama, said streets were empty in the city and shops were closed as residents observed a general strike to protest the elections. Activists reported strikes in towns and villages throughout Syria, and some hung posters of those killed during the uprising around their neighborhoods, saying their "martyrs" are the only suitable candidates.
It is unclear if voting was taking place in all parts of the country, especially in areas heavily damaged by government shelling and clashes between government troops and rebels.
The Syrian government portrays the uprising as a plot by terrorists with foreign backing to weaken the country. Some voters echoed that view.
"I have elected the newcomers because they have fresh ideas and are different from the old generation," said Damascus voter Mohammed Hassan, 25. He said those boycotting the vote were "agents of the West."
World powers remain divided on how to address Syria's crisis, though all key players have endorsed a peace plan put forward by envoy Kofi Annan designed to lead to discussions on a political solution between the regime and the opposition.
But that plan has been troubled from the start. A truce that was to begin on April 12 has never really taken hold. About 40 U.N. observers are currently in Syria to monitor the truce. U.N. officials hope a wider deployment of up to 300 international truce monitors will gradually calm the situation.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus and Ben Hubbard in Beirut contributed to this report.