Polls have opened and voting is underway in Syria’s government-held areas amid heavy security, in an election President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to win but which has been denounced by critics and the West.
The balloting, Syria's first multi-candidate election in more than 40 years, comes as a devastating, three-year civil war that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of them civilians, rages on.
As voting got under way, activists reported fighting, shelling and air raids in rebel-held areas of the country.
Previous elections saw voters handed ballots with just one member of the Assad family’s name on.
This ballot includes two other candidates, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, who are not widely known in the country. Both were vetted by the government and President Bashar is widely expected to win a third term in office.
The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a farce and the opposition and government critics have widely condemned as a sham.
In pictures: Syria elections
In pictures: Syria elections
1/20 Syria elections
Protestors who oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad carry a banner during a demonstration at Kafr Nabil town in Idlib province, northern Syria
2/20 Syria elections
A banner with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad with a slogan reading in Arabic, " we build it together" hangs on a destroyed building in the Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh
3/20 Syria elections
Syrian Prime Minister Wael Halqi speaking to media after he casted his ballot in the presidential elections at a polling station in Damascus
4/20 Syria elections
Syrian defence minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij (C) casting his ballot in the presidential elections at a polling station in Damascus
5/20 Syria elections
Employees emptying the poll boxes following to the closure of polls at midnight local time in Damascus
6/20 Syria elections
Syrian students, one wearing a T-shirt bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad, prepare to cast their votes in the country's presidential elections at a polling station in the Baath University of Homs, north of Damascus
7/20 Syria elections
A Syrian student shows her ink-stained thumb after casting her vote in the country's presidential elections at a polling station in the Baath University of Homs, north of Damascus
8/20 Syria elections
A Syrian woman rides in a car painted in the colors of the Syrian flag with President Bashar Assad's portrait in Damascus
9/20 Syria elections
A man casts his ballot in Damascus
10/20 Syria elections
Supporters of of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad celebrate in front of a polling centre in Damascus
11/20 Syria elections
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad casts his vote at a polling station in Maliki, a residential area in the centre of the capital Damascus
12/20 Syria elections
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) and his wife Asma al-Assad (R) casting their votes in the presidential elections at martyr Na'em Ma'asarani School in al-Malki neighborhood in Damascus
13/20 Syria elections
An old trains station is decorated with posters showing President Bashar Assad in Damascus
14/20 Syria elections
A Syrian man casts his ballot at a polling site in the Um-Al Zinnar church in the Old City in Homs
15/20 Syria elections
A ballot paper bearing the portraits of the three presidential candidates (LtoR) Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, President Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri displayed at Bassel al-Assad school turned into a polling station for the presidential election in central Damascus
16/20 Syria elections
Syrians walk past campaign posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad displayed on a stall at a market in the capital Damascus
17/20 Syria elections
Syrian men pretend they are casting their votes during a mock election calling for the "criminal" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the stripped of his Syrian nationality in the mostly rebel-held city of Aleppo
18/20 Syria elections
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad hold his portraits and wave Syrian flags during a demonstration in support of his candidacy for presidential election in the costal city of Tartous
19/20 Syria elections
A Syrian man shows a ballot paper bearing the portraits of the three presidential candidates (LtoR): Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Abdallah al-Nuri
20/20 Syria elections
An electoral worker holds a voting card at a polling center in Damascus
Syria's two main internal opposition groups are boycotting the vote while many activists around the country are referring to it as "blood elections".
In the 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 identification.
The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and that 9,600 voting centres had been set up around the country.
Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees across the region have either abstained or were excluded by voting laws.
At a polling station in the city's Dama Rose hotel, a box with pins was available for those who wanted to prick their finger and vote in blood — a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism.
Odai al-Jamounai, 18, told The Associated Press he voted with his blood "to express by my love to my country and my leader."
In the rebel-held central town of Rastan, which has been under attack by government forces for more than two years, an activist Murhaf al-Zoubi told the AP all the local residents "want Assad to go."
"There are no elections here, this is a free, liberated area," he added.
The ministry said voting is expected to last for 12 hours, although this could be extended for five hours tonight if there is a large turnout.
Additional reporting by agenciesReuse content