Polling stations open in Syria's presidential vote

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In this Saturday, May 31, 2014, photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad hold his portraits and wave Syrian flags during a demonstration in support of his candidacy for presidential election in the costal city of Tartous, Syria. It is Syria’s first multi-candidate presidential election in nearly half a century. But the vote on Tuesday, June 3, still has the feel of a referendum and is being touted by Assad’s government as a measuring scale for Syrians’ support of his three-year brutal military crackdown on dissent. (AP Photo/SANA)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Polling stations have opened in government-held areas in Syria for the country's presidential election — a vote that President Bashar Assad is widely expected to win.

Tuesday's balloting comes amid a devastating, three-year civil war that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people. It's also Syria's first multi-candidate election in more than 50 years.

The Syrian opposition and government critics have denounced the vote as a sham.

The election is taking place only in areas under government control. Much of northern and eastern Syria is in rebel hands.

Assad faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little known in Syria before declaring their candidacy for the country's top post in April.