A mortar shell killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds of others when it struck a large tent where supporters of President Bashar al-Assad had gathered for election campaigning in southern Syria, opposition activists said Friday.
State media reported the mortar strike late Thursday. State TV raised the death toll on Friday, saying the attack killed at least 39 people and wounded at least 305.
Assad, who has rarely been seen in public since the start of Syria's three-year old civil war, has not been seen campaigning since he declared his candidacy last month. He was not at the gathering that was shelled in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. More than 160,000 people have been killed in the fighting after the anti-Assad street protests morphed into a civil war that has sent millions fleeing for their lives and turned once-prosperous cities into rubble-strewn warzones.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the mortar attack. Opposition fighters trying to overthrow Assad frequently fire mortar shells into Syria's major cities, including the capital, Damascus, from opposition-held suburbs.
The overnight attack underscored concerns that opposition forces will step up attacks against government strongholds in the run-up to the June 3 elections. Western leaders and opposition groups have described the vote held amid the civil war as a sham.
Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Daraa, said rebels from the Free Syrian Army umbrella group fired a mortar shell at the tent in a government-held area after repeatedly warning civilians to stay away.
He said there were about 100 people in the tent, including members of pro-Assad militias, officers and employees.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, also said the shelling targeted an "electoral tent" and killed 21 people, including 11 civilians.
In Syria, rallies and other public gatherings by Assad's supporters are being held, often in tents, in some government-controlled parts of the country ahead of the election. Assad is widely expected to win a third seven-year mandate.
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 around Damascus and in the country's central region 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 opposition siege and allowing Assad's forces to close in on a nearby opposition command center.
Aleppo is Syria's largest city and has been carved up into government- and opposition-held areas since the opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012.
The Associated Press