May 23, 2014 3:50 pm

Mortar hits Assad’s election rally, killing 39 and wounding 205: report

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a general view shows Aleppo prison in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, May 22, 2014. Syrian state media and opposition activists say a mortar shell has hit an election rally for President Bashar Assad, killing a number of people.

AP Photo/SANA

BEIRUT – Syrian state TV says the toll from a mortar attack on an election campaign tent packed with supporters of President Bashar Assad is 39 people killed and 305 wounded.

The TV showed pictures of Assad supporters in a tent in the southern city of Daraa dancing. It then showed people lying dead and wounded on the ground, including children. It was the first death toll provided by the government for the attack, which opposition activists earlier said killed 21.

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The attack was the first to target a campaign event, heightening fears in government strongholds that rebels will escalate attacks in an attempt to disrupt the balloting scheduled to take place on June 3.

Assad not at rally

Assad, rarely seen in public since the start of Syria’s 3-year-old conflict, did not attend the rally in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against his rule began. More than 160,000 people have been killed since in the fighting as the revolt morphed into civil war that’s also sent millions fleeing for their lives and turned once-prosperous cities in rubble-strewn warzones.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Rebels trying to overthrow Assad frequently fire mortars into Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus, from opposition-held suburbs.

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The rally for Assad comes ahead of the country’s June 3 presidential election. Assad is widely expected to win a third, seven-year mandate despite facing two other candidates in a vote criticized by the West and opposition groups.

Assad’s family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Though this year’s vote will be the first time the family has faced challengers as opposed to a yes-or-no vote on their rule, a recently passed election law makes it impossible for those leading the revolt against Assad to compete.

Assad was last seen in public April 20 when Syrian state television broadcast images of him visiting the ancient Christian village of Maaloula north of Damascus. Government forces recently recaptured the town, part of a series of major advances ahead of the vote.

On Thursday, Syrian tanks backed by massive air power rolled into the grounds of a sprawling prison in the northern city of Aleppo, breaking a yearlong rebel siege and allowing Assad’s forces to close in on a nearby rebel command centre.

Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and has been curved up into government- and rebel-held areas since the opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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