Syria's President Bashar Al Assad (centre) attends Eid Al Fitr prayers at Anas bin Malek mosque in Damascus.
Syria's President Bashar Al Assad (centre) attends Eid Al Fitr prayers at Anas bin Malek mosque in Damascus.

Syria's Assad 'attacked on way to Eid prayers'



ANTAKYA, TURKEY // Syrian rebels yesterday attacked Bashar Al Assad's convoy as he made his way to Eid prayers, according to opposition groups.

Early speculation he had been hurt was quickly dismissed by the regime, which denied there had been a strike against the president.

Mr Al Assad was on his way to the Anas bin Malik mosque in Damascus when his motorcade was targeted with rockets, according to an opposition activist. Residents reported that loud explosions had rocked the city centre at the time.

But Syrian information minister Umran Zaubie said publicly that reports of an attack were "wholly untrue".

"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," Mr Zaubie said.

If confirmed, the attack would be one of the most direct against Mr Al Assad in more than two years of conflict.

At least two Islamist rebel groups later claimed to have attacked Mr Al Assad's convoy.

"Liwa Al Islam used rocket fire to target the convoy, while other rebel groups used mortars," a spokesman said.

However, Mr Al Assad was later shown on state television calmly praying alongside Syria's grand mufti, Ahmad Hassoun, in the customary annual publicised ritual. State television said the images were filmed yesterday morning.

Details of exactly what happened remain vague, but residents of the wealthy central neighbourhoods where Mr Al Assad and the top echelon of regime loyalists live described a series of explosions.

"There was no Eid in Damascus after the crazy morning, we woke to the sound of explosions, much louder and closer than normal, we thought the area was being shelled," said a resident of Mezzeh.

He described eight consecutive blasts and said government jets appeared to have been scrambled to patrol over the city in response.

"Eid prayers were delayed for more than an hour as the security services responded to it all," he said. "After that, everything was quiet, I went out and there was no one around, everyone was inside, people were afraid."

A Syrian opposition activist based in the capital said rebels had fired mortars or rockets, targeting the roads they believed Mr Al Assad would be travelling on.

"My information is that it wasn't a bomb left for the motorcade, they were hoping to catch him in some mortar fire," the activist said.

On the diplomatic front, Russia rejected a Saudi proposal to abandon support for Mr Al Assad in return for a huge arms deal and a pledge to boost Russian influence in the Arab world, diplomats said yesterday.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, a strong backer of Mr Al Assad, last month met Saudi Arabia's influential intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, after which both Moscow and Riyadh kept a lid on the substance of the talks.

"Every two years, Bandar bin Sultan meets his Russian counterparts, but this time, he wanted to meet the head of state," said a European diplomat who shuttles between Beirut and Damascus.

"During the meeting at the Kremlin, the Saudi official explained to his interlocutor that Saudi Arabia is ready to help Moscow play a bigger role in the Middle East at a time when the United States is disengaging from the region," the diplomat added.

Bandar proposed that Saudi Arabia buy $15 billion (Dh55bn) of weapons from Russia and invest "considerably in the country", the source said.

After recent military gains by regime forces in central Syria, and reports on Wednesday that his forces had killed 62 rebels in an ambush to the north-east of Damascus, Mr Al Assad has struck an increasingly confident pose.

He recent told a gathering of loyalists that war, not political dialogue was the only way to end the crisis, and that those fighting him would be crushed.

Fighting has been intense across much of Syria throughout Ramadan. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said almost 4,500 people had been killed during the holy month.

Rebel mortar fire, which has become more frequent in the capital according to activists, residents and Free Syrian Army fighters, may have been more of an effort to undermine the state's propaganda of a president relaxed enough to pray in public, and remind the regime the war is far from over.

Underscoring that message, as Mr Al Assad was shown on state television in Damascus, Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, was reported to be in the southern province of Deraa, the birthplace of the March 2011 revolt.

An SNC source said Mr Jarba had participated in Eid prayers, and then toured areas held by rebel units.

Repeated military campaigns since the first protests took place there - and since the first peaceful protesters were shot down by regime security forces - have failed to subdue the province.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the uprising, according to the United Nations, with millions more forced to flee their homes.

psands@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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