The Syrian government is holding a national referendum on a new constitution, as nearly 11 months of violent unrest continues without an end in sight.
Among other changes, the new constitution would end nearly five decades of one-party rule.
The opposition, however, called for a boycott of the vote on February 26, which they see as meaningless, and is demanding that President Bashar al-Assad steps down.
Despite the unrest, the government pressed ahead with organizing the referendum, setting up more than 13,000 polling stations across the country.
Turnout 'Better Than Expected'
Bassam Haddad, chief of one polling center in the capital, Damascus, told Reuters television on February 26 that turnout had been better than expected.
"Since the early hours, voting is good," he said. "It is so much more than we have expected. We can say it is 200 percent of what it was expected at this time."
State television has held discussions about the new document, which calls for a multi-party parliamentary election within three months, and explained to people how they can vote.
The authorities have held two referendums since Bashar inherited power from his late father, Hafez, 12 years ago.
The first installed him as president in 2000 and the second renewed his term seven years later – with "yes" votes getting more than 97 support in both polls.
Opposition Dismisses Poll
Anti-Assad activists have dismissed the referendum and rejected the new constitution as a farce.
They say the regime has never respected the old constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations.
Many governments have also criticized holding the referendum, with the United States dismissing the vote as "laughable."
As polls opened, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported new violence in cities around the country.
In Homs, which has been under assault by regime forces for more than three weeks, explosions were heard as security forces resumed the shelling of the rebel district of Baba Amro.
Mounting International Pressure
Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting on Assad’s regime to end its crackdown on opponents.
On February 24, a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group was held in Tunis.
In their declaration, delegates from 70 countries called on Damascus to end violence immediately, permit humanitarian access, and allow the delivery of relief supplies.
In January, the UN estimated that 5,400 people had been killed in the conflict, but activists say the death toll now is more than 7,000.
According to activists, nearly 100 people were killed across the country on February 25 alone, most of them civilians.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Carla Haddad, said on February 26 that Syrian authorities have still not responded to a request for a ceasefire.
Based on reporting by the AFP, AP, and Reuters agencies