- Associated Press - Sunday, August 19, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad attended prayers in a Damascus mosque to mark the start of a Muslim holiday on Sunday, his first appearance in public since the bombing last month that killed four of his top security officials.

Elsewhere in the country, thousands staged anti-government protests in mosques and cemeteries following special prayers marking Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Pious Muslims traditionally visit graves and recite prayers for the dead on the holiday.

Amateur video posted by activists on the Internet show a large group of worshippers in a mosque at al-Zahera district in Damascus shouting: “There is no God but Allah” and “Assad is the enemy of God,” while clapping their hands over their heads.

“May God protect the Free Syrian Army!” they also cried, referring to the main rebel group fighting to topple Mr. Assad.

Ramadan in Syria was particularly deadly this year as the civil war reached the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. The Syrian regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.

The July 18 rebel bombing of the state-security headquarters in the capital was a major blow to Mr. Assad. His brother-in-law was among the four officials killed.

There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections by government officials, diplomats and generals, though Mr. Assad‘s inner circle and military largely have kept their cohesive stance behind him. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

Syrian state TV broadcast footage showing Mr. Assad praying at the city’s Rihab al-Hamad mosque, a relatively small mosque in the al-Muhajireen district only few hundred yards from the presidential palace.

Residents of Damascus said security forces blocked streets and encircled several central mosques in the capital from Saturday evening, possibly to confuse people about where Mr. Assad would attend the traditional holiday prayers.

Unlike previous years, Mr. Assad was not shown arriving or leaving in his convoy. He was pictured wearing a suit and tie and seated cross-legged on the mosque floor and, later, standing and briefly shaking hands with officials before leaving.

“All this points to a state of confusion and lack of confidence at the leadership level,” said Syria-based activist Mohammad Saeed. “It shows they don’t have security in the capital under control.”

Mr. Assad‘s appearance comes amid much speculation on the whereabouts of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who was said by some members of the Free Syrian Army to have defected to the opposition. On Saturday, his office denied the reports. Mr. al-Sharaa was not shown in the footage at the mosque with Mr. Assad, but observers said the two rarely attend the same functions for security reasons.

The last time Mr. Assad appeared in public was on July 4, when he gave a speech in parliament.

Since then, there has been a sharp escalation in the civil war, with almost daily fighting in some districts of the capital.

As it battles for survival against the rebels, the regime increasingly has resorted to the use of airstrikes, particularly in the north, where rebels have seized large swathes of territory.

Abdelbaset Sieda, president of the Syrian National Council opposition group, reiterated his call for international powers to militarily enforce a no-fly zone that would prevent Syrian-regime aircraft from being used against rebels as well as establish safe corridors to protect civilians.

“Failing that, the entire region is headed toward a future open to all kinds of catastrophic possibilities,” the Sweden-based Mr. Sieda said in a speech addressing the Syrian people for Eid al-Fitr. A video of the speech was posted on YouTube.

The Syrian opposition has been calling for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria for months. Russia, one of Syria’s most powerful international backers, rejects the idea.

Syrians also protested in many other parts of the country, demanding freedom and the ouster of the regime.

Opposition groups reported fierce artillery shelling that targeted a main cemetery in the rebel-held town of Rastan, north of the central city of Homs. Activists said residents were visiting graves of dead relatives at the time, but the reports could not be confirmed independently.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group, said one woman was killed in the shelling of Rastan.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus.

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