Hunt for Assad is on amid claims of wife Asma's exit to Russia

President allays injury suspicions with TV appearance to swear in Defence Minister

Rumours about the location of the royal couple were rife yesterday with unverified reports claiming that President Bashar al-Assad had fled to safety in the coastal province of Latakia while his glamorous British-born wife left for Russia.

Although the president made a brief appearance on state television yesterday to swear in his new Defence Minister, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, whose predecessor was killed in the Damascus blast that took out several top regime officials, state television did not say where or when the footage was filmed.

The president's first public appearance since the attack will, however, allay suspicions that the president was himself injured.

Opposition sources and a Western diplomat told Reuters that the president was directing the official response to the assassinations from Latakia, the heartland for the Alawite sect to which the ruling family belongs. The Assad clan hails from the provincial town of Qardaha which perches on a hill above Latakia city.

Assad's mother Anisa Makhlouf and his newly widowed sister Bushra travelled with the body of his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat to Latakia last night on a private jet, according to a Free Syrian Army source who said the group had "insiders" informing them of the ruling family's movements.

The same source said that Assad had been injured – but in an attack earlier on Wednesday and not the blast at the national security centre.

"The president was in Al Shaab Palace in Damascus and there was a warning at 3.30am and they decided to move him," the source said. "As they moved, the Free Syrian Army was striking the area with mortars and one hit the cars. He only had small injuries."

The Syrian ambassador to Moscow, Riyad Haddad, told Russian news agency Interfax that reports that the First Lady Asma al-Assad, had fled there were "completely false".

With information so murky, some speculated that the blast did not happen at all and instead was part of an elaborate regime hoax to cover up the fact that senior security officials were poisoned.

Salman Shaikh, a Syria analyst at the Brookings Doha centre, said he was "increasingly suspicious" about the events. "Assef Shawkat may well have been poisoned along with other members of security cell on 19 May in operation claimed by Kataba Sahaba," he said on social networking site Twitter. "It may well have been compelled to reveal the deaths to justify the massive killing operation it has launched to clean up Damascus."

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