Syrian leader in mosque appearance

SYRIA'S embattled President Bashar al-Assad has attended prayers at a Damascus mosque, in a rare public appearance, as his troops bombarded rebel districts of Homs in the centre of the country.

Dr Assad joined prayers at al-Afram mosque in a northern district of Damascus on Thursday to mark the prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

Appearing in public for the first time since a speech on January 6, he was shown in a live broadcast, flanked by Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, the highest Sunni religious authority in Syria, and Mohammed Abdel Sattar, the religious endowments minister.

Mr Abdel Sattar called for ‘‘million man prayers’’ at mosques on Friday to appeal for the re-establishment of security in the country, rocked by a deadly anti-regime uprising for the past 22 months.

After the brief ceremony in Damascus, attended by dozens of clerics and laymen, the president smiled and seemed at ease as a crowd gathered around him to offer holiday greetings.

In Aleppo in northern Syria, clashes raged.

‘‘The family did not get together to celebrate the feast this year,’’ said Abu Muhammad, an Aleppo resident.

The army shelled besieged areas of Homs in a fifth straight day of fighting in western districts of the city, where 31 soldiers, 16 rebels and 26 civilians have been killed since Sunday, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Revolution General Authority, a network of opposition activists on the ground, said regime troops used heavy artillery and clashed with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in an attempt to storm the west side of the city.

The regime has ‘‘escalated its attack on Homs city and its environs in order to disperse the people on sectarian lines and achieve what it believes will be a final victory’’, said the Syrian National Council (SNC), a key opposition group.

‘‘The regime uses the most heinous criminal methods against human beings . . . shelling with heavy weaponry, blocking off areas to prevent the bare necessities - food, medicine - from entering,’’ it said.

AFP

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