Syria calls presidential election for June 3

Syria said Monday it will hold a presidential election expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to office on June 3, despite a civil war that has killed tens of thousands.

Underlining the ongoing violence, mortar fire hit near the parliament building shortly before the election was announced, killing two people.

Syria's first presidential election -- after constitutional amendments did away with the old referendum system -- will be held amid violence that has killed 150,000 people since March 2011, according to one monitoring group.

Speaker Mohammad al-Lahham announced the date in parliament, saying Syrians living outside the country would vote May 28 and candidates would be able to register to run from Tuesday until May 1.

Lahham said voting would be "free and fair... and under full judicial supervision".

He urged Syrians "to give voice to their will through the ballot box and participate in the democratic process by electing whoever they think is most able to lead Syria to victory."

Assad, who became president after his father Hafez died in 2000 and whose current term ends on July 17, is widely expected to run and win another seven-year mandate despite the conflict.

New election rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the past decade, effectively preventing key opposition figures in exile from standing for office.

The opposition has criticised plans to hold a presidential election and insists Assad should step down and have no role in Syria's future.

Much of the international community has also warned Syria against holding the vote, with UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi saying it could close the door to any peace negotiations.

And on Monday Britain dismissed the election, saying that holding it during the war meant the result "will have no value or credibility".

It remains unclear how Syria's government will organise a vote under the current circumstances, with swathes of the country out of its control and nearly half the population displaced.

Syria's conflict began with peaceful protests demanding democratic reform but soon escalated into a civil war after the government launched a massive crackdown on dissent.

- 'What about democracy?' -

Violence continues in many parts of the country, even reaching into the heart of the capital, which has regularly come under mortar fire from opposition fighters on the outskirts.

A security official said mortar fire in Damascus was expected to increase during the electoral period.

"They (rebels) will increase the fire this month to try to undermine the election," he said.

Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche said the government could only stage the election on 40 percent of the country's territory.

"The election can only be held in the government-held areas, a band of territory stretching from the Jordan border, through Damascus, Hama and Homs," as well as Idlib city, Jisr al-Shughur, half of Aleppo and half of Deir Ezzor, he told AFP.

Opposition member Samir Nashar, who spoke from neighbouring Turkey, described the election as "a mere continuation of (Syria's) past."

"For 50 years, from 1963 (when the ruling Baath party came to power) to date, there have been no transparent elections," Nashar told AFP.

"I don't think that anyone would believe that these elections can really express the will of the Syrian people, considering all this destruction and forced displacement... What elections are we talking about? What about democracy?"

An activist in Daraya, near Damascus, described the announcement as a new sign of military escalation in the conflict.

"Things are going towards escalation, and we haven't yet reached the point where either side is exhausted, and where they would genuinely want a political solution," Amjad Abbar told AFP via the Internet.

On the ground, regime forces were on the offensive in the central city of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes were continuing in the districts of Bab Hud and Juret al-Shiyah.

Both rebel-held neighbourhoods have been under government siege for nearly two years.

In the northern city of Aleppo, meanwhile, activists said regime aircraft dropped explosives-packed barrel bombs on several districts, a day after 52 civilians were killed in air raids across the province of the same name.

North of Damascus, a car bomb attack killed two soldiers at a checkpoint in Mashru Dummar neighbourhood.