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Assad's referendum plan dismissed

Syrian President Bashar Assad has ordered a referendum on a new constitution that would supposedly allow more political freedom.

As he made the announcement his forces continued to besiege rebellious areas.

Opponents quickly rejected the move, saying that the regime was stalling and the uprising would accept nothing less than Assad's overthrow. The referendum call also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.

Amendments to the constitution once were a key demand by the opposition at the start of Syria's uprising, when protesters first launched demonstrations calling for change. But after 11 months of a fearsome crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead and turned some cities into war zones, the opposition says Assad and his regime must go.

"The people in the street today have demands, and one of these demands is the departure of this regime," said Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an umbrella for several opposition groups in Syria and in exile.

Top Syrian ally Russia has presented Assad's promises of reform and dialogue as an alternative way to resolve Syria's bloodshed after Moscow and Beijing earlier this month vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the UN Security Council aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.

The referendum, announced on Syrian state TV, was set to take place February 26. The current Syrian constitution enshrines Assad's Baath Party as the leader of the state. But according to the new draft opposition is allowed.

The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarised in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.

The referendum announcement came during one of the deadliest assaults of the uprising. The government has been shelling the rebellious city of Homs for more than a week, and the humanitarian situation was deteriorating rapidly. Activists say hundreds have been killed, and there was no way to treat the wounded.

An oil pipeline that runs through the city was blown up. Activists accused regime forces. The state news agency, SANA, blamed "armed terrorists".

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