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Amid war and shelling, Syrians vote for president

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A woman votes for President Bashar Assad by marking the ballot with blood from her pricked finger, 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 woman votes for President Bashar Assad by marking the ballot with blood from her pricked finger, 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)

Firyal Sheikh El-Zour, 50, draws blood from her thumb with a syringe to use to mark a ballot, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday June 3, 2014. 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. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

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)

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 carrying an injured girl after a government airstrike hit Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Waving photos of their leader and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday across government-controlled parts of the country in a presidential election decried by the opposition as a charade. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

In this photo taken on Monday, June 2, 2014, and 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 rescue workers carry a man who injured by a government forces airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. Waving photos of their leader and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday across government-controlled parts of the country in a presidential election decried by the opposition as a charade. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

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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

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