Government dismisses ‘rumours’, shows President attending prayer

Syrian rebels claimed they struck President Bashar al-Assad’s motorcade with rockets and mortar rounds in a rare attack on an upscale Damascus neighbourhood where he attended prayers on Thursday to mark Id al-Fitr.

Syrian officials denied that the motorcade was hit, and state TV broadcast images of Mr. Assad attending prayers. It was not possible to determine if the footage was filmed before or after the attack. Residents confirmed there was some shelling in the area.

The attack on the Malki district, which houses Mr. Assad’s residence and office as well as several embassies, nevertheless demonstrated the ability of rebels to strike in the heart of Mr. Assad’s seat of power and in neighbourhoods that until now had been considered relatively safe.

That could shake the regime’s confidence and expose its vulnerability at a time when Mr. Assad’s military forces are continuing to rout rebels from key areas around the capital.

Thursday marked the Syrian leader’s third public appearance in over a week as his regime tries to capitalise on recent gains on the battlefield against rebels fighting to oust him from power.

Rebel brigades

At least two Syrian rebel brigades claimed they hit Mr. Assad’s motorcade. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed the claims as “rumours” and told state TV that Mr. Assad drove his own car to the Anas bin Malik mosque, located in the heart of Malki.

“The news is completely baseless and a mere reflection of the wishes and illusions of some media outlets and the governments standing behind them,” Mr. Zoubi said, referring to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel, which first broadcast the report.

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting in Syria, said only three mortar shells hit Malki early in the morning.

On Wednesday, Syrian government troops ambushed a large group of rebels trudging through a desert road northeast of Damascus, killing more than 60 fighters.

Rebels, however, have made advances in the past week in the north, where they succeeded in taking over an air base after months of fighting. They also seized a string of Allawi villages in an offensive this week in the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia, an Assad stronghold. — AP