DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian lawmaker registered as a candidate Wednesday for the country's June 3 presidential election, becoming the first official contender in a vote that will take place during the country's civil war and one that embattled President Bashar Assad likely will win.
Assad himself has suggested he'll seek another seven-year term, though he has yet to officially declare his candidacy. According to a new election law, the balloting must be contested by more than one candidate. Analysts said they expected at least one candidate to run against Assad to give the election a veneer of legitimacy.
Syrian opposition figures and Western leaders have blasted the decision to hold presidential elections amid the country's 3-year-old civil war, which activists say has killed more than 150,000 people and driven a third of the country's population from their homes.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry has rejected the criticism, saying the decision to hold presidential elections was a "sovereign one." It warned that "no foreign power will be allowed to intervene" in the process.
Lawmaker Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar registered his candidacy Wednesday, parliament speaker Jihad Laham said.
Syrian state television said the 43-year-old was from the northern city of Aleppo. The report described Hajjar as a longtime communist who later formed the Popular Will Party in Aleppo. By law, he still needs to collect the signatures of 35 lawmakers for his candidacy to become valid, state TV said.
Assad has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000. Although he has not said he will run, Assad appears to be in campaign mode, visiting areas recently retaken by his forces.
Separately, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad denied accusations that Syrian forces used poison gas against rebel held areas recently.
"These allegations are absolutely untrue," he said in a statement published Wednesday by the state-run news agency SANA. The U.S. and France have said they were looking into reports that Syrian forces have used toxic gas, namely chlorine, against opposition-held territories recently.
Also Wednesday, the directors of five United Nations agencies that provide humanitarian aid to Syria said their appeal for $6.5 billion in emergency funding for 2014 has been mostly ignored, and warned the "worst days seem yet to come" for millions of Syrians.
With only $1.2 billion pledged, the agency heads renewed a December appeal to fund their work to help Syrians trapped in areas under blockade, caught in active warzones, and those who are impoverished refugees.
The December appeal "has gone largely unanswered" for a crisis affecting 9.3 million people, said a joint statement Wednesday by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos; UNICEF director Anthony Lake; U.N. refugee commissioner Antonio Guterres; World Food Program director Ertharin Cousin, and World Health Organization director Dr. Margaret Chan.
Citing the case of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, divided between government-controlled and rebel-held areas, they said at least 1 million people were in urgent need of aid. The U.N. heads wrote that roads were being blocked by different armed groups, preventing aid from arriving.
"I think it's fair to say there is a collective sense of frustration among all the agencies working in Syria," U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke said. "We are witnessing ... the gradual destruction of an entire population. I almost fear where my imagination takes me."
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.