A woman casts her vote in Damascus on Monday. Syria’s state media has reported that voting started in scheduled municipal elections, but witnesses say turnout was low. Image Credit: AP

Beirut : Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school in several parts of the country yesterday in a show of civil disobedience against the regime as a new and fierce round of clashes between troops and army defectors spread, activists said.

Amid the violence, President Bashar Al Assad's regime pushed ahead with municipal elections that the opposition has dismissed as a meaningless concession that falls far short of their demands for Al Assad to give up power.

A call by opposition activists for an open-ended general strike starting from Sunday, if widely heeded, could place added economic pressure on Al Assad's regime at a time when it is already struggling with growing international sanctions and isolation.

A resident of Homs, the epicentre of the uprising, said only shops selling essential goods were open yesterday.

"Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open," he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees. And there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in areas that are centres of anti-government protest.

Most shops and schools were shut yesterday in the restive city of Homs and parts of the southern province of Daraa and the northwestern region of Idlib near the border with Turkey, activists said.

Traders hit

On Sunday, the activist group called the Local Coordination Committees said security forces were breaking into shops in Daraa province closed for the strike in an attempt to force them to open. Residents in the capital, Damascus, said business continued as usual on Sunday and yesterday with shops, schools and other businesses operating normally.

Al Assad has spent years trying to open up Syria's economy, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class even as the regime's political trappings remained unchanged. If the economy continues to collapse, Al Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country.

Still Al Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown. Economic sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-run and erode his vital support base in the business community.

Activists said a new round of fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began on Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas yesterday, raising fears the conflict is spiralling toward civil war.