Syrian President Bashar al-Assad performed prayers in a Damascus mosque marking the start of the Muslim Eid holiday on Sunday, state television showed, his first appearance in public since a July bombing that killed four members of his security brass.
Opposition activists reported anti-government protests at cemeteries and mosques around Syria including Damascus, Hama and Idlib at the outset of the three-day Eid al-Fitr feast, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Mr. Assad, battling a 17-month-old uprising against 42 years of rule by his family, was accompanied to the Damascus mosque by his prime minister and foreign minister but not his vice president, Farouq al-Shara, whose reported defection was denied the previous day.
His administration shaken by the July 18 bomb attack in Damascus and defections including that of his last prime minister, Mr. Assad’s recent appearances had been restricted to state television footage of him during official business. He was shown swearing in the new prime minister a week ago.
Syria’s civil war has intensified since the audacious bombing that killed members of Mr. Assad’s long inaccessible inner circle including his defence minister and brother-in-law.
At a mosque in the Damascus residential district of Muhajirin, Mr. Assad sat cross-legged during the Eid sermon in which Syria was described as the victim of terrorism and a conspiracy hatched by the United States, Israel, the West and Arabs - an apparent 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”. Eid prayers mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 began against Mr. Assad.
The ex-foreign minister kept a low profile as the revolt mushroomed but appeared last month at a funeral for three of the slain officials. The fourth died later of his wounds.
With diplomatic efforts to end the war hampered by divisions between world powers and regional 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 Mr. Assad belongs.
The statement by Shara’s office 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 hesitated for days before accepting the job. France’s UN envoy Gerard Araud has called it an “impossible mission”. Brahimi replaces 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 root. The conflict has deepened since then.
The London-based Observatory reported fighting in Damascus and Deraa despite the start of the Eid holiday.
For Syrians in Saraja, a rebel-controlled village near the Turkish border, Eid was an occasion to visit the graves of slain relatives. “He had four children, he was my only son,” said an elderly woman who identified herself as Umm Jumaa, speaking in a video obtained by Reuters as she visited his tomb.
A trench had been dug nearby in anticipation of more bodies.
Government 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. The figure could not be independently verified.
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.
UN investigators said last week government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what seemed to be state-directed policy.
Syrian insurgents had also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a smaller scale than those by the army and security forces, according to the investigators.
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.
Mr. Brahimi will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria. Diplomats said this was to distance him from Mr. Annan, who complained that his peaceful transition plan was crippled by splits between Western powers - who want Mr. Assad out - and Russia - his weightiest ally - and China in the UN Security Council.
Describing the situation in Syria as “absolutely terrible”, Mr. Brahimi told Reuters he urgently needed to clarify what support the United Nations can give him.
But he drew criticism on Sunday from the Syrian opposition over a statement that it was too early to say whether Mr. Assad should step down - in apparent contrast to Mr. Annan who said it was clear the Syrian leader “must leave office”.
In remarks to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Mr. Brahimi backed away from the comment, explaining that it was too early for him to say anything at all about his mission. “I was only appointed two days ago,” he said.