DAMASCUS - Syrian authorities Sunday announced the death in combat of a general near Damascus, while urging a mass turnout in a June 3 presidential election branded a "farce" by the opposition.
General Hussein Isaac died of wounds suffered in fighting at Mleiha, a key battleground southeast of the capital, making him one of the few top-ranking officers whose death has been announced during Syria's three-year war.
The air defence forces' headquarters is located in Mleiha, a key flashpoint in fighting around the capital.
The air force has also been deployed in the regime's war against rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime brands the uprising a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot.
For more than a month, the army backed by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah has been battling to recapture Mleiha, a strategic rebel bastion under army siege and almost constant bombardment.
While the army is in firm control of Damascus, rebels hold a number of towns and villages on the outskirts, despite a suffocating blockade and frequent air strikes and shelling.
Syria's war broke out in March 2011 with protests demanding political change, before morphing into a bloody insurgency after Assad's regime unleashed a massive crackdown.
Despite the war, the regime is to stage a presidential election next month in the areas under its control. The exiled opposition has dismissed the election as a "farce", while the United States has branded it a "parody of democracy". Parliament speaker Mohammed al-Lahham on Sunday urged Syrians to flock to the polls.
"Whoever abstains from exercising his constitutional duty would be turning his back on his national obligation at a time when his nation is calling on him," he said.
However, a state-tolerated opposition group called for an election boycott "in solidarity" with Syrians unable to vote.
"We hope that all the Syrian people will be able to exercise their right to boycott this election," said the group, set up in September 2011 after the start of the uprising.
The movement Building the Syrian State said the election was "illegal" because half of the population had been displaced.
The polls would only lead to another "authoritarian regime" because of the "absolute powers" granted to the presidency under the constitution, it said.
Assad, running for a third seven-year term against two virtual unknowns, is expected to stroll to victory in the poll.
Lahham called for unspecified measures "to guarantee a climate of security and peace" during the vote.
While the army and air force pound rebel areas on a daily basis, rebel attacks on government-held areas, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, northern Syria, have been on the rise .
On Friday and Saturday, 18 people were killed in mortar attacks on government-held areas in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On Sunday, a pro-regime newspaper said a court has brought some 30,000 lawsuits for acts related to "terrorism" over the past two years. Among those accused are around 300 citizens of other Arab countries, said Al-Watan.
Rights groups say tens of thousands of people in Syria are being arbitrarily held in jails where torture and ill-treatment are systematic.
Among cases before the anti-terror court were murder, financing "terrorism" and charges of giving such attacks publicity.
Scores of media activists opposed to the Assad regime have been killed or jailed over the course of the Syrian conflict.
More than 150,000 people have been killed since it erupted and nearly half of Syria's population has been displaced by the violence.