BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanese mobs attacked buses and cars carrying Syrians expatriates and those who fled the war heading to the Syrian embassy in Beirut on Thursday, protesting against what they said was an organized vote for President Bashar Assad.
Assad is running for a fourth seven-year term -- facing symbolic competition from two candidates -- in a vote all but guaranteed to bring him back as president.
The in-country vote is expected next week, while Syrians abroad are casting their votes Thursday. The election is the second since the country's civil war broke out 10 years ago and is seen by the opposition as well as Western and some Arab countries as a sham designed to give the incumbent a new mandate with a veneer of legitimacy.
Scattered mobs of anti-Syrian Lebanese, most of them from the Christian rightwing Forces group, waited for convoys of cars and buses carrying Syrian voters at intersections in Beirut, outside the capital and in the eastern Bekaa region. They pelted them with rocks and smashed windows with sticks. In one incident near Nahr el-Kalb on the highway north or Beirut, one attacker poked a wooden stick inside the car, poking the driver as others smashed the windshield.
Buses carrying hundreds of voters featured pictures of the incumbent president on the windows.
"They don't need to carry pictures and flags for an absurd criminal regime," said Fadi Nader, one of the protesters. "If they want to vote, they can go home and vote there... Since they love Bashar Assad, why don't they go home?"
Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces group, said Wednesday that the thousands of Syrians who are voting for Bashar Assad are clearly not fearful of his government and don't seem to be refugees afraid of returning home. He called on the government and president to arrange for their return to Syria.
Lebanese army soldiers stood guard as Syrian citizens who live in Lebanon queued outside their embassy in Yarze, east of Beirut, to cast their ballots. Some shouted slogans in support of Assad as they waited.
Lebanon is home to over 1 million Syrians, making it the country in the region hosting the largest number of refugees per capita. Their presence -- nearly one Syrian for every four Lebanese -- has weighed heavily on Lebanon's infrastructure, and resources, particularly as the small country reels under an unparalleled economic crisis.
But calls for the return of Syrians home have also been a widely politicized issue among Lebanese who have been deeply divided over the 10-year Syrian conflict, with some supporting Assad and others backing his opposition.
Even before the conflict, Syria's role in Lebanon was deeply divisive. Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon in 1976 shortly after the civil war broke out here to keep the peace. They only pulled out in 2005 following a U.N. resolution, after a 29-year domination of Lebanese politics.
The Syrians living in Lebanon find themselves in a hard spot.
The United Nations agency for Refugees, UNHCR, said it has received reports from registered Syrian refugees that they were pressured before the elections to cast their vote-- including threats of physical harm or confiscation of documents. It was not immediately clear who was behind the threats. The agency's spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled said they are following with relevant stakeholders to ensure the refugees are free to vote.
Assad has been in power since 2000 when he took over from his father, Hafez, who ruled before that for 30 years. Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Assad remained in power, supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia.
The armed conflict has subsided in recent years, but Syria remains torn. Thousands of foreign troops are based in different parts of the country. The elections are not taking place in at least four provinces because they are under the control of the opposition and Kurdish forces, depriving nearly 8 million Syrians of a vote.
The Biden administration has said it will not recognize the result of Syria's presidential election.
Syria has been in the throes of civil war since 2011, when Arab Spring-inspired protests against the Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgence in response to a brutal military crackdown. Around half a million people have been killed and half the country's population displaced.