BEIRUT (AP) — In the first attack to target a campaign event, a mortar shell slammed into a tent packed with supporters of President Bashar Assad, killing 39 people and wounding 205 others, Syrian state TV said Friday. The shelling underscored deep fears in government strongholds that rebels will escalate attacks in an attempt to disrupt the balloting.
Assad is widely expected to win a third, seven-year mandate in the vote scheduled for June 3, but the West and opposition activists have criticized it as a farce since it is taking place despite a raging civil war.
The 49-year-old president himself has not made a public appearance in more than a month and was not at the gathering struck by the mortar shell late Thursday in the southern city of Daraa. But campaigning has begun in earnest, with supporters waving his pictures and Syrian flags during daily demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, the coastal city of Latakia and other government-held areas.
Many gatherings have been held in so-called "election tents" where nationalistic songs are played and supporters mingle.
State TV showed pictures of Assad supporters dancing in a campaign tent in Daraa. It then showed people lying dead and wounded on the ground, including several children. Its toll was the first provided by the government for the attack, which opposition activists earlier said killed 21.
Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Daraa, said six such tents — festooned with posters of Assad and Syrian flags — have been set up in the past week in the city, which holds special significance as the birthplace of the uprising against his rule in March 2011.
He criticized the celebratory mood in the tents.
"They have loud music and Dabka," he said, referring to a traditional foot-stomping dance. "It's very provocative and an insult to the blood of martyrs."
He said and another activist who identified himself by his first name, Ahmad, said rebels from a faction of the Free Syrian Army umbrella group fired a single mortar shell at the tent in a government-held area, after repeatedly warning civilians to stay away. Daraa is divided into a rebel-held and a government-held sector.
He said about 100 people, including members of pro-Assad militias, officers and employees, were in the tent when it was hit in the Matar district.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said at least 21 people, including 11 civilians, were killed.
Masalma said the attack "set the tent ablaze and sent shrapnel flying everywhere."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the mortar attack and reiterated his opposition to the indiscriminate use of any weapons by any party against civilians.