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West brands Syria vote a 'sham'

Syria's authoritarian regime has held a referendum on a new constitution, a gesture by embattled President Bashar Assad to placate those wanting him to stand down.

But the opposition deemed it an empty gesture and the West immediately dismissed the vote as a "sham".

Even as some cast ballots for what the government has tried to portray as reform, the military continued shelling the opposition stronghold of Homs, which has been under attack for more than three weeks after rebels took control of some districts there.

Activists and residents report that hundreds have been killed in Homs in the past few weeks, including two Western journalists.

Activist groups said at least 29 people were killed on Sunday, mostly in Homs. At least 89 were reported killed on Saturday alone, one day before the referendum. They estimate close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on dissent began.

"The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. "Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Syrians in business and the military who still support Assad to turn against him.

"The longer you support the regime's campaign of violence against your brothers and sisters, the more it will stain your honour," she told reporters in Morocco. "If you refuse, however, to prop up the regime or take part in attacks... your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes."

US, European and Arab officials met on Friday at a major international conference on the Syrian crisis in Tunisia, trying to forge a unified strategy to push Assad from power. They began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls.

"It is time for that regime to move on," US President Barack Obama said of Assad's rule. On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad's crackdown belied promised reforms.

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