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Mortar hits Assad rally in Syria, killing scores

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BEIRUT (AP) — A mortar shell struck an election rally in southern Syria for President Bashar Assad, killing a number of people, state media and opposition activists reported Friday.

Assad, rarely seen in public since the start of Syria’s 3-year-old conflict, did not attend the rally in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against his rule began. More than 160,000 people have been killed since in the fighting as the revolt morphed into civil war that’s also sent millions fleeing for their lives and turned once-prosperous cities in rubble-strewn warzones.

The state-run SANA news agency said the mortar strike Thursday killed an unspecific number of people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said the shelling killed 21 people, including 11 civilians.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Rebels trying to overthrow Assad frequently fire mortars into Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus, from opposition-held suburbs.

The rally for Assad comes ahead of the country’s June 3 presidential election. Assad is widely expected to win a third, seven-year mandate despite facing two other candidates in a vote criticized by the West and opposition groups.

Assad’s family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Though this year’s vote will be the first time the family has faced challengers as opposed to a yes-or-no vote on their rule, a recently passed election law makes it impossible for those leading the revolt against Assad to compete.

Assad was last seen in public April 20 when Syrian state television broadcast images of him visiting the ancient Christian village of Maaloula north of Damascus. Government forces recently recaptured the town, part of a series of major advances ahead of the vote.

On Thursday, Syrian tanks backed by massive air power rolled into the grounds of a sprawling prison in the northern city of Aleppo, breaking a yearlong rebel siege and allowing Assad’s forces to close in on a nearby rebel command center.

Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and has been curved up into government- and rebel-held areas since the opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012.