x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Assad appears in Damascus for Eid prayers

Syrian leader makes first public appearance since July bomb blast.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian president, Bashar Assad, performs Eid prayers in the Hamad Mosque in Damascus. It was his first public appearance since July 4.
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian president, Bashar Assad, performs Eid prayers in the Hamad Mosque in Damascus. It was his first public appearance since July 4.

Bashar Al Assad joined Eid prayers in Damascus yesterday in his first appearance in public since a bomb blast a month ago killed four top security officials.

State television showed the beleaguered Syrian president at Al Hamad mosque with several top government and ruling Baath party officials, including the prime minister, Wael Al Halaqi, who took office this month after the defection of his predecessor.

"Syria will triumph against the western-American plot being supported by the Wahhabis and takfiris," said the imam, Sheikh Mohammed Kheir Ghantus.

Mr Al Assad spent 11 minutes at the mosque and did not linger to talk to worshippers, as was his practice before the uprising against his regime began in March last year.

Regime forces shelled several rebel strongholds across the country yesterday and clashed with armed opposition fighters in Damascus. Six children, including four from the same extended family, were killed when shells struck near their home in the rebel-held town of Maaret Al Numan in the north-western province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In all, regime forces killed 172 people yesterday including 70 in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.

Protests in several cities and towns across Syria took place after morning prayers, the Observatory said. Its activists in Darayya released balloons marked with the names of the dead and their families on the first day of the Eid holiday.

UN observers were winding up their troubled mission yesterday in the face of the escalating violence and a failure by world powers to agree on how and bring about peace. The head of the mission, Lt Gen Babacar Gaye, called on all parties to "stop this violence that is causing such suffering to the innocent people of Syria".

The new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has won support from the West as well as China and Russia, and even Syria itself, although the White House said it would be seeking clarification on the terms of his mandate.

But the opposition Syrian National Council lashed out at reported comments by Mr Brahimi that it was too soon for him to say Mr Al Assad should go, saying the remarks were a "licence to kill tens of thousands more Syrians".

The veteran Algerian diplomat, named on Friday to replace Kofi Annan, was reported to have said it was too early for him to follow his predecessor in saying Mr Al Assad must leave office. "It's much too early for me to say. I don't know enough about what is happening," he said.

In a later radio interview, Mr Brahimi denied saying it was too soon for Mr Al Assad to go and called for an apology from the Syrian opposition instead. "What I have said is that it's early for me to say anything related to the content of this issue. That's what I said," he said, speaking in Arabic. "Regarding whether Assad has to step down or not, I didn't say that it's too early for him to step down." Newspapers in Britain and Germany reported yesterday that spies from those countries were involved in covert operations to help Syrian rebels.

"We can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime," an official from Germany's BND foreign intelligence service told Bild am Sonntag.

The paper said German spies were stationed off the Syrian coast and also active at a Nato base in Turkey, whose government is now staunchly opposed to Mr Al Assad and is sheltering Free Syrian Army rebels.

Britain's Sunday Times said British intelligence was helping rebels launch successful attacks on government forces with information gathered from their listening posts in nearby Cyprus.

It said the most valuable intelligence has been about the movements of troops towards the flashpoint commercial hub of Aleppo, which is now partly controlled by rebels and is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.

Amid western speculation that more top officials were ready to abandon Mr Al Assad, Syrian state television insisted that vice president Farouk Al Sharaa had not left the country after opposition reports he had defected.

A former deputy oil minister who defected in March said Mr Al Sharaa, the regime's top Sunni official, was actually under house arrest.

Among those to have abandoned the regime are the former prime minister Riad Hijab and high-profile general Manaf Tlass, while Mr Al Assad's defence minister and three top security chiefs were killed in the July bomb attack carried out by the Free Syrian Army.

* Reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press