By ALBERT AJI and BARBARA SURK
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, President Bashar Assad, third right in front row, alongside Syria’s grand mufti, second right, prays at the start of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan at the Anas bin Malik Mosque, Damascus, Syria, Thursday Aug. 8, 2013. Mortar rounds on Thursday hit an upscale district of Damascus where Assad attended prayers to mark the start of a major Muslim holiday in a rare attack in the high security area. (AP Photo/SANA)
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian rebels claimed they struck President Bashar Assad’s motorcade with rockets and mortar rounds in a rare attack on an upscale Damascus neighborhood where he attended prayers Thursday to mark a major Muslim holiday.
Syrian officials denied that the motorcade was hit, and state TV broadcast images of 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 Assad’s residence and office as well as several embassies, nevertheless demonstrated the ability of rebels to strike in the heart of Assad’s seat of power and in neighborhoods that until now had been considered relatively safe.
That could shake the regime’s confidence and expose its vulnerability at a time when Assad’s military forces are continuing to rout rebels from key areas around the capital.
The Malki district has largely been sheltered from the shelling and battles that usually rage in the capital’s impoverished suburbs. It was not clear if Assad has stayed in Malki in recent months.
Thursday marked the Syrian leader’s third public appearance in over a week as his regime tries to capitalize on recent gains on the battlefield against rebels fighting to oust him from power.
At least two Syrian rebel brigades claimed they hit Assad’s motorcade. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed the claims as “rumors” and told state TV that 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,” al-Zoubi said, referring to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel, which first broadcast the report.
In the state TV broadcast, Assad, dressed in a suit, was seen praying alongside Syria’s grand mufti at the start of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan. The Eid prayers typically take place an hour or two after sunrise. In previous years, Assad has been seen attending them early in the morning.
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.
Malki residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety, confirmed that there was shelling. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, the rebel brigades’ claims notwithstanding. It wasn’t immediately how far the Anas bin Malik mosque is from where the shells landed.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory’s head, said he had no confirmation that Assad’s motorcade had been hit and was skeptical of the reports.
One of the rebel brigades, Liwaa Tahrir al-Sham, said it fired several 120 mm shells in the direction of Assad’s motorcade after carrying out careful surveillance of its route.
The claim was posted on the group’s Facebook and Twitter pages. The brigade’s head, Firas al-Bitar, told Al-Arabiya TV that the motorcade had been hit but that it was not certain whether Assad himself had been harmed.
Capt. Islam Alloush of the Liwa al-Islam, another rebel brigade, also claimed responsibility, saying there were casualties among Assad’s entourage. He said his brigade carried out the attack separately and without coordinating with Liwaa Tahrir al-Sham.
Alloush told The Associated Press that Assad was not hit but that several people in his entourage were killed or wounded.
“We had promised the Syrian people a big operation for Eid and we have delivered,” he said.
Rebels have claimed attacks against Assad or members of his government in the past that turned out to be false.
Also Thursday, Syria’s state news agency said several mortar shells also hit a Damascus suburb that is home to the golden-domed Shiite shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, killing five people and wounding 12 others. The shrine is named after the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter and is popular with Iranian worshippers and tourists.
Syria’s civil war has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the past year, pitting overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Meanwhile, the leader of Syria’s exiled opposition coalition attended holiday prayers in the southern province of Daraa, his second trip inside the country since he was elected head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition last month.
The coalition’s spokeswoman, Sarah Karkour, confirmed the rare foray into Syria by opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba. In a video posted by the coalition, al-Jarba, dressed in a suit, is seen talking to people, surrounded by unarmed rebels wearing fatigues.
The Syrian uprising started in Daraa in March 2011 as protests against Assad’s rule. The largely peaceful revolt turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown. More than 100,000 people have been killed.
Assad’s troops have recently been on the offensive in central Syria, making advances near the border with Lebanon and in the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. They’ve also been fighting pockets of resistance around the capital and have battled rebels in Daraa near the border with Jordan.
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 Alawite villages in an offensive this week in the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.