DAMASCUS - 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.
The balloting comes amid a devastating, three-year civil war that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.
It's also Syria's first multi-candidate election in more than 40 years.
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The Syrian opposition and government critics have denounced the vote as a sham. Syria's two main internal opposition groups are boycotting the vote while many activists around the country refer to it as "blood elections."
The balloting is taking place only in areas under government control as much of northern and eastern Syria is in rebel hands.
Assad, who is running for a third seven-year term, 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.
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.
In the Syrian capital, Damascus, security was tight with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the city and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
At one of the city's polling centers, 49-year-old merchant Ahmad Qadah, who has been living in Egypt since fleeing the fighting in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, said he still believes in Assad.
"I came to Syria four days ago to vote for President Bashar Assad because he is the most competent to lead the country," Qadah said after casting his ballot. "I hope that this vote will help in improve the situation because we need a strong leader in these difficult circumstances."
The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and that 9,600 voting centers have been set up around the country. The ministry said voting could be extended for five hours on Tuesday evening if there was a big turnout.