CAIRO — Syrian state television has shown embattled President Bashar al-Assad attending ceremonies for the annual Islamic Eid al Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan. The service took place at a mosque near the presidential palace and most of those attending appeared to be government officials.
Those attending the service, including Assad, observed the Eid al Fitr ritual, repeating after Sheikh Mohammed Kheir Ghantous, who led the crowd of several hundred in prayer.
It was only the third time that Assad has appeared on TV since a bomb blast killed many of his top aides at a security compound last month. The president was seen on TV after the explosion appointing a new army commander and a new defense minister.
Arab commentators noted that President Assad traditionally attends major Islamic services at Damascus' iconic Omayyid Mosque. They suggested that tight security after the bombing which killed his brother-in-law and his defense minister prompted him to avoid the limelight.
Al Arabiya TV reported that sniffer dogs were used to check the area in and around the mosque for explosives. Assad looked nervous throughout the service and left without shaking hands with many top aides and officials alongside him, as is usually the custom.
Syrian opposition figures stressed that several key government officials, including Vice President Farouq al Shara and Ba'ath Party head Abdallah Ahmar did not attend. Al Arabiya TV reported several days ago that Shara had defected to Jordan, but Syrian TV denied the report.
Opposition activists are claiming that Ba'ath Party head Ahmar was arrested after trying unsuccessfully to defect but this has not been confirmed.
In the state television report, President Assad was shown exchanging words with his Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Abdel Sattar es Sayyid and Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun.
The mufti addressed the nation after the service, urging Syrians to put down their weapons and stop the bloodshed shaking their country.
“Oh sons of Syria,” he urges, “stop the bloodshed, because the world is watching and saying 'see the Muslims kill each other.' Have you heard of such wars in Europe or America where people shed each other's blood? Why do we do this when we are sons of the same [Islamic] nation?"
Amateur video showed shells falling Sunday in the besieged town of Rastan, near Homs. Opposition leaders claim that government artillery bombed mourners at a cemetery despite the Eid al Fitr holiday. It was impossible to verify the claim.
Arab satellite TV channels broadcast live webcam footage of a crowd of men chanting “freedom, freedom” outside a mosque in the embattled city of Aleppo. The channels reported that some shooting and shelling took place around the city, despite the holiday.
Meanwhile, state TV showed Syria's Minister of Higher Education Mohammed Yehya al Ala'a visiting a model hospital in Damascus. He claimed that Syrian hospitals are “in a state of readiness and well-equipped,” with the exception of one facility. Human rights groups and the United Nations have condemned government attacks on many hospitals across the country.