Syrians Vote on New Parliament

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syrians in government-controlled areas headed to polling stations Wednesday to elect a new 250-member parliament that is expected to serve as a rubber stamp for President Bashar Assad.

Voters began turning up shortly after the stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT). Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out.

Early Wednesday, Assad and his wife, Asma, cast their ballots at the Assad Library in Damascus. The president did not make any comments.

The country's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told reporters after voting: "We in Syria always say that the Syrian people decide their destiny and today they are proving practically the accuracy of this saying."

Parliamentary elections in Syria are held every four years, and Damascus says the vote is constitutional and separate from the peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the five-year war.

But the opposition says it contributes to an unfavorable climate for negotiations amid fierce fighting that threatens an increasingly tenuous cease-fire engineered by the United States and Russia.

Western leaders and members of the opposition have denounced the voting as a sham and a provocation that undermines the Geneva peace talks.

In the Syrian capital, voters said they fully supported holding the elections on time.

"I feel proud today because the elections are a national and democratic duty any honest citizen should practice," said Wahid Chahine, a 54-year-old government employee, after casting his ballot at a Damascus polling station.

He said the voting is constitutional and should not be postponed, despite millions of other Syrians being unable to take part.

"I hope in the next elections all Syrians will be able to vote and that Syria would be free from all terrorists," he added.

Marah Hammoud, a 21-year-old journalism student from the central city of Homs, said it is important at this particular time in Syria for people to be able to choose their representatives.

"We want elected officials who care about the people, who can help end this war and control prices," she said. "We live on this hope."

The election, in which soldiers are being allowed to vote for the first time, will be conducted only in areas under government control.

Voting stations have been set up in 12 of Syria's 14 provinces. The northern province of Raqqa is controlled by the Islamic State group, and the northwestern province of Idlib is controlled by its rival, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, as well as other insurgent factions. The government has no presence in either province.

Polls close at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT), but could stay open longer if turnout is high. The results are expected Thursday.

In Turkey, a local news agency said shells fired from Syria have hit a southern Turkish area, the fourth such cross-border incident in less than a week.

The private Dogan news agency said the shells struck two areas of the city center of Kilis on Wednesday morning, triggering panic despite landing on empty land and causing no casualties. Police were dispatched to the affected area. Turkey routinely retaliates after rockets or shells land on its territory.

(KA)