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BBC’s Jim Muir: “People have started voting… but there are also reports of shelling and shooting in many parts of the country”

The Syrian government is holding a referendum on a new constitution as violence continues around the country, killing at least 20 people.

The new constitution calls for a multi-party parliamentary election within three months.

The opposition has boycotted the vote, calling it a farce and demanding President Bashar al-Assad stand down.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said “there’s every possibility” Syria could descend into civil war.

But she warned “outside intervention” could exacerbate the situation. “I think that as you try to play out every possible scenario, there are a lot of bad ones that we are trying to assess,” she told the BBC.

Activists say more than 89 people died across Syria on Saturday.

‘Laughable’

The Syrian government has pressed ahead with organising the referendum despite the unrest, setting up more than 13,000 polling stations for 14.6m voters.

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At the scene

image of Lina Sinjab Lina Sinjab BBC News, Damascus

The streets are filled with billboards encouraging people to vote for the constitution but the polling stations I visited were nearly empty.

At one school, two people showed up to vote in the 20 minutes I was there, although Ahmad Baalbaki, who was supervising the process, said 300 people had cast their vote.

Muneira, a housewife, says she voted “yes”. She hasn’t read the constitution but she supports the president.

In a central square, a pro-Assad rally is taking place in support of the constitution.

Nearby, a group of young men and women were handing out booklets to encourage people to vote.

One of them, Husein Saqer, said:”People don’t want to vote because they see no difference between this one and the other constitution, but we are here to tell them to vote”.

Voting began at 07:00 (05:00 GMT) and polling stations are due to stay open for 12 hours.

State television showed people voting in Damascus and various other places, and it all looked fairly normal, the BBC’s Jim Muir reports from neighbouring Lebanon.

But, he added, in many other parts of the country, it is far from normal, with explosions and shooting reported from the east, west, north and south – in areas where violence has been going on for months.

At least nine civilians and four soldiers were killed in the embattled city of Homs, the UK-based activist group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Violent clashes were reported in the central city of Hama, the north-western province of Idlib and in Daraa province, south of Damascus.

The vote is on a new constitution that would allow for more opposition to Mr Assad’s Baath Party, but it has been rejected out of hand by critics of the government.

One group described the new constitution as fraudulent and the referendum as a farce.

It pointed out that the regime had never respected the old constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations and bans torture.

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Hillary Clinton: “I think there is every possibility of a civil war”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed doubt about the timing of the vote: “On one hand you say you are holding a referendum and on the other you are attacking with tank fire on civilian areas.

“You still think the people will go to a referendum the next day in the same city?” he said at a news conference in Istanbul.

The US has dismissed the referendum as “laughable”.

Friends of Syria

The Observatory said Saturday’s deaths included 24 civilians in the embattled city of Homs and that 23 government soldiers were killed in clashes with rebel groups across the country.

The Red Cross has been trying to evacuate more people trapped in Homs’s Baba Amr suburb but admitted it had made no progress on Saturday.

Among those it is trying to help are two injured Western journalists, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy. It also wants to retrieve the bodies of another two journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who were killed last week.

Footage of mourning in the Khalidieh district of Homs, 25 Feb 2012 Footage of mourning in the Khalidieh district of Homs was broadcast on YouTube

Hundreds of armed rebels from the Free Syrian Army are holding out in Baba Amr.

Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting on Mr Assad to end his government’s 11-month crackdown on opponents.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who has been appointed the UN and Arab League’s envoy to Syria, called for all parties to co-operate in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

On Friday, a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group was held in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

Delegates from 70 countries issued a declaration calling on the Damascus government to end violence immediately, allow humanitarian access, and permit the delivery of relief supplies.

The UN estimated in January that 5,400 people had been killed in the conflict. Activists say the death toll now is more than 7,300.

The Syrian regime restricts access to foreign journalists and casualty figures cannot be verified.

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