Amid violence, Syria to hold elections

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Story highlights

  • Parlimentary elections are scheueld to get under way Monday
  • More than 7,000 candidates will compete, state news reports
  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits a refugee camp along the Turkey-Syria border
  • At least four people die in violence Sunday in Syria

Syrians are expected to go to the polls Monday to vote in parliamentary elections that are being held amid ongoing violence and increasing international pressure on the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad.

More than 7,000 candidates will vie for a place in the 250-seat parliament, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported. Voting is scheduled to start at 7 a.m. (12 a.m. ET), it said.

The election comes after the nation adopted a new constitution that allows political parties to compete with the ruling Baath Party. That referendum, hailed by government supporters as a step toward reform, was widely ridiculed by analysts and protesters as window dressing.

Syria's anti-government protests started peacefully in March of last year, but a crackdown spawned violence that has left thousands dead and prompted some military defectors to take up arms against government forces. The government has consistently blamed the violence on "armed terrorists."

At least four people died Sunday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria.

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Also Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a refugee camp along the Turkey-Syria border where he promised to support people fleeing the violence there and said that the Syrian president is "losing blood."

"Oppressors who massacre innocent people, children and women have always, sooner or later, served their sentences in history," Erdogan said.

"Bashar is losing blood with every passing day," he added, referring to his former ally.

The prime minister vowed to host the more than 23,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkish camps until they voluntarily choose to go back to their country.

On Saturday, an explosion near Syria's largest city of Aleppo killed at least five people, opposition activists said. The blast occurred as security forces drove by in a bus, but it was unclear whether the fatalities were soldiers or civilians, according to the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It also reported separate blasts in the capital of Damascus.

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Opposition activists said they asked United Nations observers to visit a university after Syrian forces stormed dormitories during anti-government protests last week, killing seven people and forcing its closure.

Dozens of unarmed military observers are in Syria with a total of 300 expected by the end of the month to monitor a cease-fire and the peace plan.

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Aleppo, a bastion of support for President al-Assad, has been largely spared in Syria's 14 months of bloody uprising. Recent protests there could signal a significant shift.

"The regime is very worried," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Their actions in the last few days demonstrate that."

CNN cannot independently verify reports of violence and deaths within Syria because the government has restricted access by most of the international media.

Also on Sunday, a group calling itself the al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility in postings to jihadist websites for a suicide bombing on government forces said to be involved in a massacre of protesters in al-Latamneh.

The group said the April 20 car-bomb attack targeted a headquarters of 350 soldiers, but did not include further details about the attack. The group has claimed responsibility for other attacks, including a March 27 bombing that killed at least 27 people at a military intelligence office, according to the jihadist monitoring service SITE.

Syrian opposition groups have previously expressed doubts about the group, saying they believe the al-Assad regime may be behind the claims.

Attacks and clashes violate a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, escalating doubts on whether the uprising can be resolved.

A cease-fire went into effect April 12 as part of a six-point peace plan negotiated by Annan.

The plan includes the government allowing humanitarian groups access to the population, releasing detainees, starting a political dialogue and withdrawing troops from city centers.

The United Nations estimates that at least 9,000 people have died in the conflict but that estimate is old and believed low by opposition groups.