BEIRUT - A splintered Syrian opposition voted on Tuesday to keep a secular academic exile seen as a consensus builder as its top figure to further a quest for recognition from wary big powers in its struggle to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
In a counter-move to rebuild credibility, Damascus said that over half of eligible voters turned out for a parliamentary election last week, part of reforms it says show Assad's intent to resolve an uprising against his autocratic rule peacefully.
But violence went on heedless of an April 12 ceasefire accord brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, with dissidents saying government forces killed two insurgents and kept up a campaign of detentions in a key oil-producing region.
A political path out of Syria's bloodshed is the goal of Anna's blueprint to end a violent crackdown by Assad's forces and the insurgency - drawn largely from the country's Sunni Muslim majority - that emerged alongside mass street protests.
Persistent bloodshed has led Sunni Saudi Arabia - for which an Assad demise would deal a welcome blow to his backers in Shi'ite Muslim Iran, Riyadh's rival for influence in the Gulf - to warn that Annan's plan is losing credibility.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group of factions, has struggled to gain full international recognition as the sole legitimate face of opposition to Assad because of infighting and political incoherence in its ranks.
Two people present at a ballot in Rome said Burhan Ghalioun, a sociologist long resident in France, won two-thirds of the vote, reflecting his acceptability to the several Islamist factions whose influence is dominant in the SNC.
Ghalioun, 67, who will serve another three-month term, has been criticised by some opposition figures for failing to unify the SNC and forge close ties to dissidents inside Syria. He has also been accused of providing a liberal veneer to what is a widely Islamist, albeit factionalised, opposition.
His backers in the SNC counter that Ghalioun is also acceptable to minorities within Syria's array of sects and ethnicities, and enjoys support from Qatar, the other resource-rich Gulf power to speak of arming Assad's foes against him.
George Sabra, another liberal who is an ally of Syria's top dissident Riad al-Turk, came second in the vote, the sources said. Turk, an 81-year-old former leftist who spent 25 years as a political prisoner, operates underground inside Syria. The opposition looks to him for moral guidance.
RAIDS, MASS ARRESTS
On Syria's battleground, opposition sources said Assad's forces killed two rebels in Deir al-Zor, an oil town near the border with Iraq, where activists say troops backed by tanks have been carrying out house-to-house raids that have resulted in hundreds of arrests in the last four days.
There was no independent verification of the report. Syria has limited journalist access to the country during the 14-month-old revolt against over 40 years of Assad family rule.
The plan U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan presented a month ago for leading Syria out of bloodshed calls for the release of detainees, among other things, as a step toward a negotiated political solution.
Damascus has read that element as validation of the package of reforms it has floated during the uprising, including a revision of the constitution to allow more political parties and the parliamentary vote whose results it announced on Tuesday.
Khalaf al-Azzawi, head of the judiciary body that oversaw the election, said 51 percent of eligible voters had turned out, down slightly from an election in 2007 when the rule of Assad's Baath party was unchallenged.
At least one independent figure made it into the assembly, according to results Azzawi read out in a televised news conference in Damascus. No figures were given for turnout in cities and towns under siege by government forces.
"The election gave the people the broadest possible representation," he told a televised news conference in Damascus. "The election took place with full transparency, democracy, integrity, supervised and monitored by independent judicial councils which were not pressured by any side."
Opposition leaders dismissed the election in advance as a ruse to buy more time for crushing dissent and said not credible voting was feasible in areas under continued siege and shelling from Assad's security forces.