Syria’s Assad makes rare appearance for Eid prayers

August 20, 2012

BEIRUT, Aug 19 (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first appearance in public since a July bombing that killed four top security officials, attending prayers at a Damascus mosque on Sunday to mark the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid, state TV showed.

The first day of Eid 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 defence minister and brother-in-law.

Assad was pictured 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 Aug. 6.

Hijab was the highest-level Syrian official to desert the government so far. Reports on Saturday that Shara, also a Sunni, had tried to bolt to Jordan drew a denial from the government.

Shara, 73, had “never thought for a moment about leaving the country”, according to a statement from his office broadcast on state television. Shara, whose cousin – an intelligence officer – announced his own defection on Thursday, comes from Deraa province where the revolt against Assad begun.

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