BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad visited displaced Syrians in the town of Adra on Wednesday, state media said, in a rare public appearance outside the heart of Damascus.
State television said Assad inspected a shelter for people displaced by fighting in Adra, which lies about 12 miles northeast of central Damascus and was partly captured by rebels three months ago.
Footage showed Assad in a dark jacket and white shirt touring shelters for displaced people, shaking hands, kissing cheeks and talking with groups of men, women and children.
At one point, he entered a large hall as a crowd inside clapped and cheered. “The state is for every Syrian. Every one of you is a son to the state. We are concerned for every one of you, and for every displaced person everywhere in Syria,” he said.
Assad has made few public appearances since the Syrian conflict began three years ago. Wednesday’s trip underlined his increasing confidence just 18 months after rebels appeared to be challenging his control over the capital.
In his short speech, Assad said he had visited displaced families, listened to the problems they were facing and assured them the government was working to help. He added that the armed forces were fighting for them to return home.
“There are families missing people. Every missing person is a son to us. There are families with martyrs, with wounded, and we are concerned for all of them. Every missing person, the state will search for them. Do you hear us?” he said, prompting chanting and cheering.
“With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Bashar,” the crowd chanted. “God, Syria, Bashar - and that is all.”
After the original news item, television showed interviews with a wide variety of people praising the president, thanking him and expressing hope for victory over “terrorists,” the government’s standard term for the rebels.
Adra, close to rebel strongholds east of Damascus that are under siege by Assad’s forces, is located by the main highway running north from Damascus to Homs. The army has fought to secure it from rebel fighters over the last year.
Many residents fled Adra in December when mainly Sunni Muslim rebels took over part of the town and killed 28 people in a sectarian attack targeting Druzes, Christians and Alawites - the same sect to which Assad belongs.
Adra had a population of about 100,000 including Alawites, Druzes, Christians and Sunni Muslims before the conflict erupted.
The Syria crisis, which began with protests against more than 40 years of Assad family rule, became militarized after authorities cracked down on demonstrators. It then descended into a civil war in which 140,000 people have been killed.
Assad’s forces, backed by Shi‘ite powers Iran and Hezbollah, are fighting Syrian rebels backed by foreign jihadis and have secured much of the center of the country. Authorities have rejected opposition calls for Assad to step down and are preparing for a presidential election later this year.
Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Dominic Evans; Editing by Tom Heneghan