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Syrian Assad supporters attacked in Lebanon while heading to polls

Polls opened on Thursday for millions of Syrians in the diaspora to vote in widely criticised presidential elections
Syrian voters residing in Lebanon carry portraits of President Bashar al-Assad before registering to vote at the Syrian embassy on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut on 20 May 2021 (AFP)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Lebanon have reportedly been pelted with stones and attacked on Thursday, as Syrians living outside the war-torn country head to polling stations.

Polls opened on Thursday for Syrians in the diaspora to vote in presidential elections, widely expected to be won by Assad, who has been in power since 2000.

Videos released on social media appeared to show cars in traffic adorned with pictures of the Syrian president being set upon by a group of men, who jumped on the cars and smashed their windows.

A reporter from al-Hadath news channel said the attackers were supporters of the Lebanese Forces, a far-right Christian political party that has regularly expressed its opposition to Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Translation: Lebanese Forces militia sets up a checkpoint in the Nahr al-Kalb area and attacks Syrians heading to vote for President Bashar al-Assad

AFP said that Syrians had also come under attack in a number of other parts of Lebanon. The state-run National News Agency said a 54-year-old Syrian man had died from a heart attack aboard a bus carrying voters.

Syrians started to gather outside their country's embassy in Baabda, south of Beirut, from 5am amid a heavy deployment by Lebanese security forces.

Some voters carried pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, who ruled Syria between 1970 and his death in 2000. A number also carried the flag of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a far-right party that advocates annexing Lebanon to Syria, which has also called for a vote for Assad in the election.

The previous presidential elections in 2014, which were widely condemned as undemocratic, saw Assad receive 92 percent of the vote.

The Lebanese government says it hosts around 1.5 million Syrians, including around one million UN-registered refugees. The massive influx of Syrians fleeing war in their home country over the past decade has stretched resources in Lebanon, and numerous politicians have called for Syrians to be deported.

On Wednesday, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that those who were willing to vote for Assad should "immediately" leave the country.

“The definition of a displaced person is clear and internationally recognised, and they are a person who leaves their country over a force majeure and security threats that prevent them from staying,” he said in a statement.

“Accordingly, we call on the president and the caretaker PM (of Lebanon) to give the necessary instructions to the ministries of interior and defence and the relevant administrations to obtain complete lists of those who will vote for Assad tomorrow, in order to ask them to leave Lebanon immediately to the areas controlled by the Assad regime in Syria, as long as they will vote for this regime and it does not pose a threat to them."

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A number of countries, including the UK, Turkey and Germany, have banned the holding of the elections for Syrians there.

The UK for Syria Twitter account on Monday tweeted its endorsement of a statement from the opposition Syrian National Council rejecting the election process, accompanied by the hashtag #ElectionsFarce.

More than 388,000 people have been killed in Syria since the outbreak of war in 2011, while more than half of Syria's pre-war population have fled their homes.

Assad has been aided by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which openly announced their involvement in the conflict in 2013.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Lebanon-based NGO Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) said that Syrians in the country were coming under pressure to participate in the elections.

The group said that political allies of Assad were exploiting the precarious status of Syrian refugees - 80 percent of whom do not have legal residency - to force them to register to vote.

"ACHR observed direct threats against civil society activists and camp superintendents, to have them pressure refugees in their surroundings to register their names as voters with the Syrian embassy in Beirut," it said, adding that this was mainly taking place in Beirut, Baalbek, Akkar and the south of the country.