DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian authorities took the rare step of denying media reports of an attack on President Bashar al-Assad’s motorcade as he travelled to a mosque on Thursday to attend prayers marking a Muslim holiday.
It was the first report of a direct attack on Assad’s convoy since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011.
Several media outlets, including Saudi-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel, as well as activists on the ground, had said that a rocket attack targeted Assad’s motorcade as he travelled to the Anas bin Malik mosque in central Damascus to join the Eid al-Fitr prayers that celebrate the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
“Regarding the information reported by Al-Arabiya, I can assure you that it is completely false,” Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told state television.
“The president arrived at the mosque driving his own car, he attended the prayer and greeted everyone in the mosque as he does every day when he meets people,” Zohbi added.
The minister slammed reports of the attack on the motorcade as a “projection of the dreams and illusions of certain media and the governments behind them,” adding that they were a “joke”.
“Everything is normal,” Zohbi added. “They wanted to spoil the celebrations for Syrians.”
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of the Sunni-led rebels seeking to oust Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog could not confirm the reported rocket attack but said mortar shells early Thursday hit the upmarket Malki area in central Damascus, near to where Assad was attending the Eid prayers, and where the president’s offices are also located.
The NGO did not report any casualties or victims in the shelling, which however indicated that rebels seeking to topple Assad are able to launch attacks despite relentless attempts by regime forces to clear the capital of insurgents.
Assad appeared in footage shown by state television sitting on the ground next to other dignitaries, appearing relaxed and smiling during the morning prayer.
“Oh God, grant President Assad success, for the good of the country,” Ahmed al-Jazairi, imam of the mosque said at the end of the prayer.
The Syrian president has rarely appeared in public since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. On August 1, he travelled to Daraya, a former rebel stronghold near Damascus, saying he was confident of “victory” against the rebels in a rare journey outside the capital.
Despite intense efforts by the international community to secure a negotiated end to the conflict there is still no end to the fighting in sight.
Washington and Moscow, a key ally of Assad’s regime, have tried without success so far to organise a peace conference in Geneva.
US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the situation in Syria by phone on Wednesday and “agreed on the importance of supporting a unified and inclusive” opposition, the White House said in a statement.
During the call, requested by Erdogan, the two, both backers of Syria’s opposition, also talked about “the danger of foreign extremists in Syria”, the statement said.
Syrian rebels suffered a huge blow Wednesday with 62 of them reported killed in an ambush, as Obama announced Washington would be providing an additional $195 million in food and other humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict.
Photo Credit: AFP