Syria's Assad makes rare appearance for Eid prayers

BEIRUT Sun Aug 19, 2012 7:16pm EDT

1 of 10. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (3rd L) attends Eid Al Fitr prayers at al-Hamad mosque in Damascus August 19, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

Credit: Reuters/Sana/Handout

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first appearance in public since a July bomb attack, attending prayers at a Damascus mosque to mark the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid, state TV showed.

The first day of Eid on Sunday also gave Assad's opponents a chance to rally and activists reported protests around Syria, including in the capital, on a holiday that marked the end of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Fighting raged on around Syria, killing more than 100 people, an activist group reported.

Battling a 17-month-old uprising against 42 years of rule by his family, Assad was filmed at prayer with his prime minister and foreign minister but not with his vice president, Farouq al-Shara, whose reported defection was denied the previous day.

Shaken by a July 18 bomb attack in Damascus and defections - including that of his last prime minister - Assad's recent appearances on state TV had previously been restricted to footage of him conducting official business. He was shown swearing in the new prime minister a week ago.

Syria's civil war has intensified since the bombing that killed members of Assad's inner circle, including his defense minister and brother-in-law.

Assad was pictured on Sunday sitting cross-legged at a mosque in the Damascus residential district of Muhajirin listening to a sermon in which Syria was described as a victim of "terrorism" and a conspiracy hatched by the United States, Israel, the West and Arabs - a reference to Gulf states which back the revolt.

Sheikh Mohammad Kheir Ghantous said the plot would not "defeat our Islam, our ideology and our determination".

Dressed in a suit and tie, Assad smiled as he greeted officials including senior members of his Baath Party.

In attendance were Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Prime Minister Wael al-Halki. He is the replacement for Riyad Hijab, a Sunni who has joined the opposition to Assad since his defection was announced on August 6.

Hijab was the highest-level Syrian official to desert the government so far.

With diplomatic efforts to end the war hampered by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria is facing the prospect of a prolonged conflict that threatens to destabilize the Middle East with its sectarian overtones, pitting a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.

FIGHTING CONTINUES DESPITE START OF EID

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 100 people had been killed on Sunday. The figure could not be independently verified. It reported fighting in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere despite the start of the Eid holiday.

In the rebel-held village of Saraja, near the Turkish border, the bereaved visited their relatives' graves, in accordance with Eid tradition.

"He had four children, he was my only son," said an elderly woman who identified herself as Umm Jumaa, speaking in a video obtained by Reuters as she visited the grave of her slain son.

A trench had been dug nearby in anticipation of more bodies.

Even as President Assad appeared in Damascus, videos posted by activists on YouTube showed protests against him in and around the capital. "Oh martyr, your blood will not go to waste," chanted protesters in Qudsia, a Damascus neighborhood, in a YouTube posting dated August 19.

"The people want divine protection," chanted several dozen men shown in another video, posted by activists and dated August 19. It showed a protest at Yabrud, north of Damascus.

What started out last year as a mostly peaceful protest movement against Assad's rule is now an armed insurrection.

Government forces have increasingly resorted to air power to hold back lightly armed insurgents in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's largest city and business hub. More than 18,000 people have died in Syria's bloodshed and about 170,000 have fled the country, according to the United Nations. Aleppo has been the theatre for some of the heaviest recent fighting. Rebels hold several districts in the country's largest city and have tried to push back against an army counter-offensive.

U.N. investigators said last week that government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes, including murder and the torture of civilians in what seemed to be state-directed policy.

Syrian insurgents had also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a smaller scale than those by the army and security forces, according to the investigators.

Syrian state television reported that government forces had thwarted several attempts by armed groups to infiltrate Syria from Lebanon, a country whose own fragile stability has been put under strain by the conflict next door.

(Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Khaled Oweis in Amman; Mirna Sleiman in Dubai, Karolin Schaps in London and Matt Spetalnick in Air Force One; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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