BEIRUT Refugees waved flags and held pictures of Bashar al-Assad as they crushed into Damascus's embassy in Lebanon on Wednesday to join Syrians worldwide voting early in an election that looks certain to give him a third seven-year term as president.
Expatriates and those who have fled the war were casting their ballots at dozens of Syrian embassies abroad ahead of next week's vote inside the country that opponents have dismissed as a farce as the fighting rages in its fourth year.
Several countries that oppose Assad, including France, have blocked the voting but Syrian government media said people were still able to participate in many countries.
Assad has been in power since 2000 when he took over from his father, Hafez, who ruled before that for 30 years. The election is an illustration of how effectively the government has weathered the revolt that has killed more than 160,000 people and how it exerts influence beyond its borders.
In Lebanon, which holds a million Syrians - most of them refugees - citizens were driven to the Syrian embassy in Beirut. Their buses blocked one of Beirut's three main highways and men and women waved Syria's flag and held up pictures of Assad.
Refugees have told Reuters that they had been mobilised by pro-Assad Lebanese groups to vote and said the buses were paid for. Some say that those who did not vote will be banned from entering Syria again.
Tens of thousands of people were bottle-necked into the entrance, some getting squashed by the hordes behind them. The Lebanese army had brought armoured vehicles and firemen sprayed the crowd with water to help cool them in the midday heat.
Inside the embassy, men and women voted. None said they had voted for the two candidates other than Assad - Hassan Abdallah al-Nouri and lawmaker Maher Abdel-Hafiz Hajjar.
"Allah, Syria and Bashar only," the crowd of men shouted inside the ballot room. Many of the staff and volunteers who were helping to organise the election wore pro-Assad T-shirts.
Radwan Said, a 23-year-old man from the Syrian province of Raqqa, said he had voted for Assad. "He's the only choice. He will crush the terrorists," he told Reuters.
"PARODY OF DEMOCRACY"
Syrian state television said voting was taking place in 43 embassies. It broadcast footage from Kuala Lumpur, Tehran and Amman.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the channel that he "was surprised by the undemocratic decisions taken by countries which say they are democratic - like the French, Belgian and Bulgarian governments - but which are not in line with international law".
He said the countries had banned Syrians from going to embassies, which he said is in violation of the Vienna Protocol on Diplomatic Relations.
The European Union has said holding an election "in the midst of conflict, only in regime-controlled areas and with millions of Syrians displaced from their homes would be a parody of democracy, have no credibility whatsoever, and undermine efforts to reach a political solution".
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also said such elections are "incompatible" with peace talks in Geneva that broke down in February but which both sides have agreed to continue. The peace talks are based on seeking a political transition in Syria.
Syria, which had a military presence in Lebanon from the start of the civil war in 1975 to 2005, continues to wield strong influence in the small Mediterranean country.
This power is mostly channelled through the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, which is helping Assad fight majority Sunni rebels in Syria. Many voters carried Hezbollah flags as they went to vote on Wednesday.
Reuters met Syrians of many sects who voted, including Sunnis, Shi'ites, Syrian Armenians and Kurds.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alison Williams)