Assad in rare public appearance


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad performed Eid prayers in a Damascus mosque today, his first appearance in public since a July bombing in the capital that killed four of his top security officials.

Dr Assad, battling a 17-month-old uprising against 42 years of rule by his family, was accompanied by his prime minister and foreign minister but not his vice president, Farouq al-Shara, whose reported defection was denied yesterday.

His administration shaken by the July 18th attack and defections including that of his last prime minister, Dr Assad's recent appearances had been restricted to state television footage of him during official business.

Most recently, he was shown swearing in the new prime minister a week ago.

Syria's civil war has intensified since the audacious attack that killed members of Dr Assad's long inaccessible inner circle including his defence minister and brother-in-law.

With diplomatic efforts to end the war hampered by divisions between world powers and inter-Arab rivalries, Syria faces an unabating conflict that threatens to destabilise the Middle East with its sectarian reverberations, pitting a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite minority to which Dr Assad belongs.

In the footage broadcast today, Dr Assad sat cross-legged during a sermon in which Syria was described as the victim of terrorism and a conspiracy hatched by the United States, Israel, the West and Arab states but which would not "defeat our Islam, our ideology and our determination in Syria".

Eid prayers mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Dr Assad, dressed in a suit and tie, 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 6th.

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

Mr Shara had "never thought for a moment about leaving the country", according to a statement from his office broadcast on state television. Mr Shara, whose cousin - an intelligence officer - announced his own defection on Thursday, comes from Deraa province where the revolt began against Dr Assad.

The 73-year-old ex-foreign minister kept a low profile as the revolt mushroomed but surfaced in public last month at a state funeral for three of the slain officials: the fourth died later of his wounds.

The statement said he had worked since the start of the uprising to find a peaceful, political solution and welcomed the appointment of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new international mediator for Syria.

Mr Brahimi, who hesitated for days before accepting a job that France's UN envoy Gerard Araud called an "impossible mission", will replace former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who is leaving at the end of the month.

Mr Annan's six-point plan to stop the violence and advance towards negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took hold. The conflict has deepened since then.

Dr Assad's forces have resorted increasingly 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.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 190 Syrians were killed on Saturday, 62 of them in Damascus and the surrounding countryside as a result of bombardment by government forces. The figure could not be independently verified.

The Observatory added that protesters took to the streets in and around Damascus and in Idlib province in the northwest to demand an end to Assad's rule following Sunday's Eid rites.

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 an army counter-offensive.

In the town of Tel, north of Damascus, local activists said the bodies of 40 people killed by bombardment were gathered together for a joint burial. A picture showed what appeared to be several corpses wrapped in colourful blankets on a street.

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


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