Beirut: Thousands of people have fled government-held Syrian cities after opposition fighters warned they will attack during next week`s presidential election to disrupt the vote, opposition activists said Friday.
The Syrian government presents the June 3 polls, in which President Bashar Assad is widely expected to secure a third seven-year term, as a means to end the 3-year-old conflict that has killed more than 160,000 people.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the vote as a farce aimed solely at lending Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy.
Civilians have escaped the government-held northwestern city of Idlib, which is blockaded by rebels on three sides, after the Islamic Council, a military and civil body in rebel-held areas, ordered them to leave by midnight today. The city, besieged by rebels for more than two years, has witnessed frequent clashes.
Rebel fighters closed roads linking areas under their control with those in government hands in the city after the deadline imposed by the council passed, said an activist in the area who goes by the name of Hasan Idilbi.
"The opposition is preparing for a strike to disrupt the elections," Idilbi said via Skype.
Members of the Islamic Council could not be immediately reached for comment.
Another activist based near Idlib named Bassil Asaad said thousands of people have fled, although he said he didn`t expect a wide attack on Tuesday.
"I think it is only psychological warfare, although some rebels are warning they will turn it into a bloody day in Idlib," he said.
Asaad Kanjo, who is based in the nearby town of Saraqeb, said about 4,000 people left Thursday alone. He added that they are mostly fleeing to villages and towns in the surrounding province that carries the same name, as well as areas close to the border with Turkey.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed scores of people, some on foot, moving in a rural area outside the city. The video appeared genuine and matched Associated Press reporting of the event.