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Syria to hold referendum

HOMS – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has decreed that a referendum on the new draft constitution will be held on 26 February, state media report. The document drops the article giving the ruling Baath Party unique status as the "leader of state and society".

The opposition has made clear that it rejects any political moves by the government while there are still violent attacks against protesters. Earlier, an explosion hit a fuel pipeline in the central city of Homs.

A dense plume of black smoke is still rising from the edge of the Baba Amr district - the target of bombardment by security forces for more than a week - live video footage broadcast online showed. As smoke billows above Homs the BBC's Jim Muir says it is hard to see how a referendum can take place

Activists said the pipeline carried crude oil from the Rumeila fields in the eastern Syriac Desert to the Homs refinery, one of two in the country. They said it was hit by government artillery fire, either deliberately or by mistake. One group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, claimed that warplanes had flown over Baba Amr and blown up the pipeline.

But the state news agency, Sana, reported that an "armed terrorist group" had attacked a 30cm-wide (12in) diesel fuel pipeline, which supplied the capital, Damascus, and the south of the country. The main oil pipeline has been targeted several times during the uprising against President Assad, which began in March.

On Sunday, President Assad received a copy of Syria's proposed new constitution, which took a national committee four months to produce. In theory, the new constitution holds out the prospect of a modern, democratic republic with a multi-party system, and no president allowed to be re-elected more than once. Officials say it will make Syria a beacon of democracy in the region.

Russia has welcomed the step, but the opposition will be deeply sceptical. The new constitution is part of President Assad's "reform process", which has been moving very slowly and has made little difference on the ground. Opposition supporters point out that the scrapping of the emergency law last year has done nothing to halt state violence, torture and killings. The date set for the referendum is just two days after a planned meeting in Tunis of the "Friends of Syria" grouping, where the opposition will be looking to mobilise maximum support from western and Arab backers.

They are unlikely to call it off and fall into line with a "reform process" which they regard as cosmetic window-dressing. It is also highly debatable whether a referendum could be organised and conducted credibly in such a short time, when much of the country is in chaos. Committee members said they had sought to write a document that "guarantees the dignity of the Syrian citizen and secures his basic rights" and "turns Syria into an example to follow in terms of public freedoms and political plurality", the state news agency Sana reported.

"When the new constitution is approved, Syria will have passed the most important stage of laying down the constitutional and legal structure through the reforms and laws that have already been issued to take the country to a new era in co-operation with all spectrums of the Syrian people," Mr Assad was quoted as saying. – Agencies

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