Bashar al-Assad has cast his ballot in Syria's first multi-candidate presidential vote denounced as a sham by the opposition and branded "blood elections" for the horrific civil war that has torn the country apart.
The Syrian president, whose victory against two little-known, regime-approved challengers is widely expected, voted in the morning hours at a school in the upscale Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki where he lives. Pictures posted on Assad's official Facebook page showed him in a dark blue suit and tie as he cast his ballot surrounded by a cheering crowd and flanked by his wife, Asma.
In other photos broadcast by Syria's state television, he was seen contemplating before filling the ballot paper in a curtained booth. It was the first time in more than 40 years of the Assad family rule that other names have appeared on the ballot paper.
The other two candidates, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, however did not represent a real challenge and had actually voiced their support for Assad.
"The people in Syria are calling for stability and security, and to fight terrorism. They want military leadership and President Assad is doing well in this," Nouri told The Daily Telegraph.
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Hajjar and Nouri cast their ballot at Damascus's Sheraton Hotel.
The US, Britain and other Western powers have described the elections that will give Assad a third seven-year term in office as a farce. Boycotted by the opposition, the vote was taking place in government-controlled areas, where thousands lined up outside polling centers to show support for Assad.
"He is my leader and I love him," said Uday Jurusni, a student who voted using a pin to prick his finger to draw blood. "With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety."
Murhaf al-Zoubi an activist from the rebel-held central town of Rastan said all local residents opposed Assad. "There are no elections here, this is a free, liberated area," he said.
The ballots didn't stop fighting between government forces and rebel groups. A mortar shell landed near Damascus' landmark Opera House on Omayyad Square but resulted in no damages or casualties.
Fighting, shelling and air raids were also reported in other rebel-held areas across the country.