AMMAN (Reuters) - Fighting between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces erupted in an oil producing province in eastern Syria, residents and activists said on Sunday, the eve of a parliamentary election the authorities say shows reforms are under way.
Rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the east of the provincial capital Deir al-Zor, in response to an army offensive against towns and villages in the tribal area bordering Iraq that has killed tens of people and stopped others reaching supplies and medical care, 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 that is more advanced than in Western democracies.
The authorities are touting Monday’s parliamentary 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.
The assembly currently does not have a single opposition member and official media said half the seats would be reserved to “representatives of workers and peasants”, whose unions are controlled by Assad’s Baath Party.
“Nothing has changed. Syria’s political system remains utterly corrupt and election results will be again determined in advance,” said opposition activist Bassam Ishaq, who unsuccessfully ran for parliament in 2003 and 2007.
“There are effectively very few seats for independents, and these will go to the highest bidder.”
Interior Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar toured the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, and declared Syria’s commercial and industrial hub was ready for the vote.
“All resources should be made available to ensure the electoral process proceeds smoothly,” Shaar, flanked by electoral officials, told state media.
Anti-government demonstrations have expanded in Aleppo after Assad’s forces killed seven student protesters at Aleppo University last month. Witnesses say street demonstrations demanding his removal have been expanding across the country after the monitors’ arrival.
Backed by old ally Russia, and with support from Iran’s clerical Shi‘ite rulers, Assad, who belongs to Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, has relied on the Alawite dominated military to try to put down the uprising against his repressive rule, which is being mostly led by members of the country’s Sunni majority.
Unlike the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, who have been toppled by Arab Spring revolts, Assad has retained enough support among the military and among his Alawite sect, which dominates the army and security apparatus, to withstand the popular revolt.
The ruling elite still has open supply lines from Iraq and Lebanon to counter Western sanctions. In Lebanon the Shi‘ite guerrilla group Hezbollah has led support for Syria to the disquiet of the Sunni population.
On Sunday, the U.N. monitors were due to visit the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border, a day after a tour of Douma, another town that at one time was known as a stronghold for the armed opposition but is now back under army control.
Editing by Alison Williams