Syrian President Assad meets with Damascus manufacturers

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Damascus manufacturers affected by war on Tuesday, state media said, in his first reported meeting since rumors circulated that he was suffering from ill health.

A man sells cotton candy near a banner for Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, Syria January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Assad greeted business owners from the capital and its countryside to discuss challenges they have faced during the conflict, now in its sixth year, his media office said.

State news agency SANA published photos of Assad in a meeting and quoted him as praising the industrialists’ contributions to Syria’s war-torn economy.

Speculation swirled in recent days on social media and some news websites saying Assad, 51, was in critical condition, citing rumors of stroke, or even that he had been shot.

The Syrian government denied rumors about Assad’s health, saying he was “carrying out his duties quite normally”.

“President Assad is in excellent health,” his office said in a statement on Friday.

SANA said on Monday that Assad had spoken by phone to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the first report from state media to detail Assad’s activities since the health rumors emerged.

In the 17th year of his presidency, Assad holds the upper hand in the Syrian war, bolstered by allies Russia and Iran whose military involvement has turned the conflict to his advantage.

The Syrian army and allied forces took the Wadi Barada area near Damascus on Sunday, in another blow to rebel groups that have fought for years to unseat Assad.

The capture of Wadi Barada came weeks after rebels were driven from their last major urban stronghold of east Aleppo, in Assad’s biggest gain of the conflict yet.

Swathes of Syria remain outside his control, including the Islamic State-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor, large areas of the north held by Kurdish groups, and several pockets of rebel-held territory in the west.

Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Tom Heneghan