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.
Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled for 29 years before his death in 2000, when his son succeeded him. The Ba'ath party took power in 1963.
Russia welcomed the proposed referendum, but Syrian opposition groups quickly rejected it, saying the government was stalling for time and that the Syrian people would accept nothing less than Assad's ouster. White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the referendum as "laughable," saying it "makes a mockery" of the Syrian uprising.
Hama under attack
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.
Watch related video of oil pipeline explosion in Baba Amr
In the capital, Damascus, elite troops searched houses and made arrests. Syrian officials blame "armed terrorists" for the 11-month uprising against President Assad's autocratic rule.
Also Wednesday, France said it is negotiating a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria with Russia, Assad's ally and main arms supplier. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also said Paris wants to create "humanitarian corridors" to allow aid groups access to areas hit by the deadly crackdown. France first proposed the idea in November.
Arab diplomats have circulated a text to U.N. General Assembly members calling on Syria to stop the crackdown and accusing the government of rights violations. The non-binding resolution is likely to receive broad support at a vote on Thursday.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution earlier this month, blocking the body from endorsing a Western- and Arab-backed plan for President Assad to step aside as a way of ending the crisis.
U.S. officials say President Barack Obama expressed disappointment with China's veto at a meeting with visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. Both China and Russia have said the Security Council must not take sides in a domestic conflict or provide a pretext for foreign military intervention in Syria.
Rights groups say more than 6,000 people have been killed since pro-Assad forces began cracking down on anti-government protesters last year. The United Nations stopped updating the death toll in January, saying it was too difficult to obtain information.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.