Syrians line up to vote in presidential election

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Presidential Vote in Syria
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Syrians line up to vote in presidential election
In this photo released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, casts his vote as Syrian first lady Asma Assad, right, stands next to him at a polling station, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Thousands of Syrians lined up outside polling centers in government-controlled areas around the country to vote Tuesday in the presidential election that Assad is widely expected to win but which has been denounced by critics as a sham. (AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JUNE 04: Syrians inspect a building collapsed in an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the opposition controlled Al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on June 04, 2014. More than 100,000 people have been killed during the ongoing three-year conflict in Syria, which has also internally displaced more than 6.5 million people, according to the U.N. Over two million Syrians are now registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrians dance in the street as they celebrate outside a polling station in Damascus while people cast their ballots in the country's presidential election on June 3, 2014. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that current President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens carrying a man who was injured by a government forces airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Syria's presidential vote this week as "a great big zero," and said it can't be considered fair "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote."(AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man looking at a damaged pickup which was carrying house belongings on a street that attacked by a government forces airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Syria's presidential vote this week as "a great big zero," and said it can't be considered fair "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote."(AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 3: A woman votes for the presidential election in Damascus, Syria on 3 June, 2014. Candidates are current president Bashar al-Assad, politician Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and former minister Hassan al-Nouri for the presidential election. Around 15 million eligible voters are casting their ballots in more than 9,600 polling stations which have been set up in government-held areas. Voting starts at 4 in the morning and finishes at 5 in the evening. Voting will continue tomorrow. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian men pretend they are casting their votes during a mock election calling for the 'criminal' Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the stripped of his Syrian nationality, on June 3, 2014 in the mostly rebel-held city of Aleppo. Syrians in regime-held areas voted in a controversial presidential election in which Assad is looking to boost his grip but which the opposition has slammed as a 'farce'. BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 3: A woman votes for the presidential election in Damascus, Syria on 3 June, 2014. Candidates are current president Bashar al-Assad, politician Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and former minister Hassan al-Nouri for the presidential election. Around 15 million eligible voters are casting their ballots in more than 9,600 polling stations which have been set up in government-held areas. Voting starts at 4 in the morning and finishes at 5 in the evening. Voting will continue tomorrow. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrians wave their national flag as they drive through Damascus celebrating as Syrians cast their ballots in the country's presidential election on June 3, 2014. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that current President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition.  LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and first lady Asma Assad, right, leave a voting booth to cast their vote at a polling center, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday June 3, 2014. Thousands of Syrians lined up outside polling centers in government-controlled areas around the country to vote Tuesday in the presidential election that Bashar Assad is widely expected to win but which has been denounced by critics as a sham. (AP Photo/SANA)
A Syrian woman casts her ballot as she votes in the presidential election on June 3, 2014 at a polling station in Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 3: A voting paper for presidential election is seen on the photo in Damascus, Syria on 3 June, 2014. Voting starts at 4 in the morning and finishes at 5 in the evening. Current president Bashar al-Assad, politician Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and former minister Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri are candidates for the presidential election in Syria. Voting will continue tomorrow. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian woman casts her ballot as she votes in presidential election on June 3, 2014 at Bassel al-Assad school turned into a polling station in central Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. Bassel al-Assad is the late older brother of Bashar al-Assad.  LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian woman shows a ballot paper bearing the portraits of the three presidential candidates (LtoR): Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri and President Bashar al-Assad on June 3, 2014 during the presidential election at a polling station in central Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian man shows a ballot paper bearing the portraits of the three presidential candidates (LtoR): Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri and President Bashar al-Assad on June 3, 2014 during the presidential election at Bassel al-Assad school turned into a polling station in central Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. Bassel al-Assad is the late older brother of Bashar al-Assad. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Performers take part in a protest action symbolising a forced and repressive election, organized by Syrian-born artist Rami Hassoun, against the Syrian elections, in Lyon, eastern France, on June 3, 2014. Syrians voted today in a presidential election in which Bashar al-Assad is looking to tighten his grip on power as his forces battle rebels in a devastating three-year war. Assad faces two little-known challengers and is expected to win, despite a massive rebellion and a war the UN has warned is likely to drag on even longer as a result of the vote. JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
A man takes a photo of posters mocking Syrian president Bashar al-Assad near the Madeleine Church in Paris, on June 2, 2014, a day before the presidential election in Syria. Syria geared up today for an election expected to keep Assad as president but derided as a 'farce' and only staged in regime-held parts of the war-ravaged country. AFP PHOTO/AMMAR ABD RABBO == NO SALE == NO MAGAZINES == (Photo credit should read AMMAR ABD RABBO/AFP/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 2: Banners of Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Damascus within the presidential election campaign to be held on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 2: Banners of Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Damascus within the presidential election campaign to be held on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 2: Banners of Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Damascus within the presidential election campaign to be held on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 2: Banners of Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Damascus within the presidential election campaign to be held on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian woman casts her ballot as she votes in presidential election on June 3, 2014 at Bassel al-Assad school turned into a polling station in central Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. Bassel al-Assad is the late older brother of Bashar al-Assad. In the background on the wall is portraits of the three candidates (LtoR): Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, al-Assad and Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri. AFP PHOTO/ LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man presses his thumb, a drop of blood on it, onto a ballot paper bearing the portraits of the three presidential candidates on June 3, 2014 during the presidential election at Bassel al-Assad school turned into a polling station in central Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that current President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. Bassel al-Assad is the late older brother of Bashar al-Assad. AFP PHOTO/ LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JUNE 3: A man is seen after voting on presidential election in Damascus, Syria on 3 June, 2014. Voting starts at 4 in the morning and finishes at 5 in the evening. Bashar al-Assad, politician Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and former minister Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri are candidates for the presidential election in Syria. Voting will continue tomorrow. (Photo by Ali Demir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian head of the National Initiative for Change opposition group and presidential candidate, Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri shows his ink-strained finger after voting in presidential election on June 3, 2014 at a polling station at Sheraton Hotel in Damascus. Syrian current President Bashar al-Assad voted as well in Damascus in an election expected to give him a sweeping win over two little-known challengers, state television reported. AFP PHOTO/ LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians present their documents before voting in the presidential election on June 3, 2014 at a polling station in Damascus. Voting offices opened in Syrian regime-held areas for a presidential election that al-Assad is certain to win, and that has been slammed as a 'farce' by the opposition. AFP PHOTO/ LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians drive their vehicle past a campaign billboard bearing the portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on June 1, 2014 in the capital Damascus. Syria began its last day of campaigning for the June 3 presidential elections expected to return incumbent Bashar al-Assad to power, a vote the opposition has labelled a 'parody of democracy'. In the background is historical al-Hijaz railway station. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
A traffic policeman rests in front of a building with posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Polls opened in government-held areas in Syria amid very tight security Tuesday for the country's presidential election, a vote that President Bashar Assad is widely expected to win. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
A man holds a portrait of President Bashar Assad and a national flag at a polling station in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Polls opened in government-held areas in Syria amid very tight security Tuesday for the country's presidential election, a vote that President Bashar Assad is widely expected to win. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
A man votes for President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Polls opened in government-held areas in Syria amid very tight security Tuesday for the country's presidential election, a vote that President Bashar Assad is widely expected to win. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Waving photos of President Bashar Assad and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday in a presidential election that excluded a vast swath of the pre-war population and was decried by the opposition as a charade.

Some stamped their ballots with blood after pricking their fingers with pins supplied by the government in a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism. Others chose to vote in full sight of other voters and television cameras - rather than go behind a partition curtain for privacy.

Men and women wore lapel pins with Assad's picture and said re-electing him would give the Syrian leader more legitimacy to find a solution to the devastating three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.

Security was tight, with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the Syrian capital and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.

In the early evening, state television said the electoral committee extended voting by five hours to midnight (2100GMT, 5 p.m. EDT) because of "high turnout at the ballot box."

Even as crowds of Assad's supporters flocked to the polls in Damascus, the sounds of war were inescapable. At least three fighter jets roared low over Damascus during the voting, which residents said was unusual.

The dull sounds of explosions also reverberated in the distance as pro-government forces and rebels battled in nearby rural towns and ashy plumes of gray smoke marked the skyline. Several mortar hits were reported in the capital, including one that crashed near the Opera House on a major plaza, though the voting was largely peaceful.

The balloting is only taking place in government-controlled areas, excluding much of northern and eastern Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees across the region either abstained or were excluded by voting laws.

Assad's win - all but a foregone conclusion - would give him a third seven-year term in office, tighten his hold on power and likely further strengthen his determination to crush the insurgency against his rule.

The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a sham. The so-called internal Syrian opposition groups seen as more lenient are also boycotting the vote, while many activists around the country are referring to it as "blood elections" for the horrific toll the country has suffered.

The vote is also Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election in more than 40 years and is being touted by the government as a referendum measuring Syrians' support for Assad. He faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little known in Syria before declaring their candidacy for the country's top post in April.

In government strongholds of Damascus and Latakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing, all the while declaring undying loyalty to Assad.

In Homs, Syria's third-largest city, the atmosphere was more restrained, with people standing in long lines to vote. Even the destroyed Old City, recently evacuated by hundreds of rebel fighters after a cease-fire agreement with Assad's government forces, had a few polling stations, including one placed in the courtyard of the heavily damaged St. Mary's Church of the Holy Belt.

Mohammed Hussam, an opposition activist in the eastern half of the contested northern city of Aleppo, said no voting was taking place in "liberated" areas, as rebels call areas they control. Speaking via Skype, he said there was much anger about the "theater" taking place in government-held parts of western Aleppo.

The government has presented the election as the solution to the conflict, but there is no indication it will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation. The stage-managed balloting also will likely put to rest any illusions that the man who has led Syria since 2000 has any intention of relinquishing power or compromising to reach a political solution.

Assad cast his ballot in the morning at a school in his posh Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki. The TV showed him in a dark blue suit and tie, flanked by his wife, Asma, both smiling as they inserted their ballots in a transparent box.

In his first public appearance since undergoing heart surgery in March, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem voted with a Syrian flag wrapped like a shawl around his neck.

"The path toward a political solution to the crisis begins today," he declared.

At a polling station in the upscale Dama Rose hotel in central Damascus, a cup filled with pins was on offer for those who chose to vote in blood. Some pricked their fingers repeatedly to ensure they drew enough blood to mark the circle under Assad's name on the ballot. Most, though, voted in ink.

"With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety," said student Uday Jurusni, who voted in blood, after pricking his finger. "He is my leader and I love him."

Outside the hotel, about two dozen men banged drums, waved flags and danced as they chanted, "God, Syria and Bashar!" Streets around polling centers were awash with Assad posters.

In one Damascus polling station, government official Basam Ramadani stood with a small pile of syringes instead of pins for those wishing to vote in blood.

After using one of the syringes, voter Firyal Sheikh El-Zour, 50, proudly displayed her bloodied finger to the media. Another voter suspiciously glanced at the syringes, then muttered: "Give me a clean needle."

The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and that 9,600 voting centers have been set up around the country. Polls were expected to close at 7 p.m, but the ministry has said voting could be extended for five hours if there was a big turnout.

A London-based Syrian opposition figure, Muhieddine Lathkani, called the vote a "black comedy."

"This election has no value and no one will recognize it, no matter what North Korea and Iran think about it," he said, referring to some of the key states allied with Assad.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.

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