News / Middle East

Syrian President Orders Constitutional Referendum

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ordered a constitutional referendum later this month that he says would end nearly five decades of single-party rule, as government troops continued to assault rebellious areas nationwide.

If approved, the February 26 ballot would usher in a new charter that dilutes the ruling Ba'ath party's status as "the leader of the state and society." State media said Wednesday the draft also permits a president to be elected to two seven-year terms, setting a limit for the first time in decades.

Meanwhile, activists said Syrian troops mounted a new offensive in Hama, the country's fourth largest city. Rights groups said government forces were firing at residential neighborhoods with anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles.

In Homs, 40 kilometers to the south, witnesses said the government's nearly two-week assault continued, and an explosion hit an oil pipeline near the city's rebel-held Sunni Muslim district of Baba Amr. In the capital, Damascus, elite troops searched houses and made arrests.

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