(AP) Syria’s Assad makes rare public appearance
By ZEINA KARAM
Syria’s President Bashar Assad attended Eid prayers in a mosque in Damascus on Sunday, his first appearance in public after a bombing in the Syrian capital last month that killed the country’s defense minister and three other top security officials.
Elsewhere across Syria, thousands held anti-government protests in mosques and cemeteries to mark Eid al-Fitr, a holiday when pious Muslims traditionally visit graves and pray for the dead.
The three-day holiday marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which was particularly deadly in Syria as the 18-month-old uprising reached the country’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Amateur video posted by activists on the Internet showed a large group of worshippers in a mosque at al-Zahera district in Damascus shouting, “There is no God but Allah and Assad is the enemy of God,” while clapping their hands over their heads.
Syrians also protested in many other parts of the country, demanding freedom and the ouster of the regime.
Opposition groups reported fierce artillery shelling that targeted a main cemetery in the rebel-held town of Rastan, north of the central city of Homs, as people visited the graves of dead relatives, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one woman was killed in the shelling on Rastan.
Meanwhile, Syrian state TV broadcast footage showing Assad praying at the city’s Rihab al-Hamad Mosque, a relatively small mosque in al-Muhajireen district only few hundred meters (yards) from the presidential palace, to mark the start of Eid.
Residents of Damascus said security forces blocked streets and encircled several central mosques in the capital as of Saturday evening, possibly to confuse people about where Assad would attend the traditional holiday prayers.
Unlike previous years, Assad was not shown arriving or leaving in his convoy _ only seated on the mosque floor, wearing a suit and tie, and later, standing and briefly shaking hands with officials before leaving.
The last time Assad appeared in public was on July 4 when he gave a speech in parliament.
Since then, there has been a sharp escalation in the country’s civil war with almost daily fighting in some districts of the capital between security forces and rebels seeking to topple Assad.
The Syrian regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.
The July 18 rebel bombing of the state-security headquarters in the capital was a major blow to Assad. His brother-in-law was among the four killed officials.
There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections by government officials, diplomats and generals, though Assad’s inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Assad’s appearance comes amid much speculation on the whereabouts of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who was said by some members of the Free Syrian Army to have defected to the opposition. On Saturday, his office denied the reports and said al-Sharaa “did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country.”
Al-Sharaa did not appear in the footage at the mosque with Assad, but observers note the two rarely attend the same functions for security reasons.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.