Beirut: Syrian President Bashar al-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 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 Assad. His brother-in-law was among the four killed officials.
There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections by government officials, diplomats and generals, though Assad's inner circle and military have largely 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 Assad praying at the city's Rihab al-Hamad mosque, a relatively small mosque in al-Muhajireen district only few hundred meters (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 Assad would attend the traditional holiday prayers.
Unlike previous years, Assad was not shown arriving or leaving in his convoy. He was pictured seated cross-legged on the mosque floor, wearing a suit and tie, 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."
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.
First Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012, 13:19