DAMASCUS, Syria - Waving photos of their leader and dancing with flags, thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday in the country's presidential election decried by the opposition as a charade.
Some stamped ballots with their blood, others chose to vote in full sight of other voters and television cameras — rather than go behind a partition curtain for privacy.
Men and women wore lapel pins with Assad's picture and said re-electing him would give the Syrian leader more legitimacy to find a solution to the devastating three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.
The balloting is only taking place in government-controlled areas and Assad's win — all but a foregone conclusion — would give him a third seven-year term in office, tighten his hold on power and likely further strengthen his determination to crush the insurgency against his rule.
The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a sham. The so-called internal Syrian opposition groups seen as more lenient are also boycotting the vote, while many activists around the country are referring to it as "blood elections" for the horrific toll the country has suffered.
The vote is also Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election in more than 40 years and is being touted by the government as a referendum measuring Syrians' support for Assad. He faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri.
Syrian TV said Assad cast his ballot in the morning hours at a school in the posh Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki where he resides.
As thousands lined up outside polling centers in the capital, cheering and waving Syrian flags, the dull sounds of explosions reverberated in the distance as pro-government forces and rebels battled in nearby rural towns. Ashy plumes of grey smoke marked the skyline.
"He is my leader and I love him," said student Uday Jurusni, who voted using a pin to prick his own finger to draw blood. "With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety."
At a polling station in the upscale Dama Rose hotel in central Damascus, a cup filled with pins supplied by the government was on offer for those who chose to prick their fingers and vote in blood — a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism.
Outside the hotel, about two dozen men banged drums, waved flags and danced as they chanted, "God, Syria and Bashar!" Streets around polling centers were awash with posters of Assad.
Security was tight, with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the Syrian capital and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
There was no balloting in much of northern and eastern Syria, where swaths of territory are in rebel hands.