Middle East

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in rare mosque visit

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Media captionThe footage from Syrian state TV shows Mr Assad performing prayers, but not arriving at or leaving the mosque

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made his first appearance in a public place since a bombing in Damascus last month killed several senior officials.

State TV showed Mr Assad performing prayers in the capital's al-Hamad mosque at the start of the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan.

Across the country, many people marked the holiday with prayers and anti-government demonstrations.

But opposition groups reported fierce bombardments of rebel-held areas.

Parts of Aleppo and Rastan have been shelled, and clashes reported in Herak, Deraa province, the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Protests were held at cemeteries and mosques around Syria including Damascus, Hama and Idlib, opposition activists said.

Defection rumours

Mr Assad was shown seated on the mosque floor and standing to shake hands with clerics.

Correspondents say that in previous years he was generally filmed arriving or leaving in his convoy, but this did not happen this time.

On 18 July, a bombing at the state security headquarters killed four senior officials including Mr Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat.

Mr Assad's appearances on state TV since then have been limited to footage of official business, such as swearing in the new prime minister last week.

There have also been several defections in recent weeks by senior officials, notably Prime Minister Riad Hijab.

However, on Saturday officials denied rumours that Vice-President Farouq al-Shara, the most senior Sunni Muslim in the Damascus regime, had gone over to the opposition.

Support for new envoy

The international community has welcomed the appointment of the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.

Image caption Mr Brahimi is considered to have a formidable reputation at the UN

The 78-year-old succeeds Kofi Annan who resigned this month as his peace plan had failed to achieve a real ceasefire.

Analysts say he has a formidable reputation at the UN but is also seen as independent of the major powers.

Officials in Damascus have also given him their support.

However, opposition groups have expressed scepticism about his ability to accomplish his mission.

Mr Brahimi has said it is too soon for him to demand that Mr Assad should step down. Mr Annan had said it was clear he should leave office.

Meanwhile, the mandate of the UN observer mission in Syria ended at midnight local time (21:00 GMT). The observers were deployed to monitor a ceasefire brokered by Mr Annan, but no truce ever took hold.

Announcing his resignation earlier this month, Mr Annan had said he was unable to fulfil his role because of the growing militarisation of the conflict, as well as deadlock in the UN Security Council.

Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.

Activists estimate about 20,000 people have died since anti-government protests erupted against the Assad regime in March last year. Tens of thousands of people have also fled the country.