DAMASCUS — Campaigning began on Sunday for Syria's June 3 presidential election expected to return Bashar al-Assad to power, as the regime marked a symbolic victory with the exit of rebels from Homs.
In Damascus, campaign posters lauding Assad hung on shopping streets and in public gardens, in the run-up to the country's first multi-candidate presidential vote.
The election is being staged despite a raging civil war, with dozens of people killed every day nationwide.
Polling will be held only in government-controlled territory, excluding large areas held by rebels, and refugees who fled through unofficial crossings are barred from voting.
Nevertheless, the president's office in a statement "called on all Syrians to express their opinion on any candidate in full freedom and transparency through the ballot box on election day."
It urged Syrians to respect the campaign period and praised the "civilised" and "pluralistic" election process.
Assad, standing for his third seven-year term, came to office in 2000 after the death of his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, who had been in power since 1970.
He faces two opponents, both largely unknown, who qualified from a pool of 23 who sought to stand against him.
Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar is an independent MP and former communist party member from Syria's second city Aleppo, and Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri is a Damascus businessman who was a member of the tolerated internal opposition.
In the capital, a few posters for Nuri's campaign could be seen, calling for a "battle against corruption," a "free economy" and the "return of the middle class."
His campaign broadcasts have also aired on state television.
In the Baramkeh neighbourhood, a Hajjar campaign billboard bore his photo and the slogan "Sovereignty belongs to the people, they have the final word, Syria belongs to those who build it." — AFP