Syrian rebels claim rocket attack hit Bashar al-Assad’s motorcade

Doubts remain over President’s safety after he is seen attending prayers for Eid al-Fitr

Syrian rebels said they fired rockets and mortar rounds that hit an upscale district of Damascus where President Bashar al-Assad attended prayers to mark the start of Eid al-Fitr.

At least two Syrian rebel brigades claimed they hit Assad’s motorcade in the Malki district of the capital, but Syrian state TV broadcast images of the leader attending prayers and the information minister denied reports the president had been attacked.

However, it was not possible to determine if the footage of Assad praying was filmed before or after the attack.

Assad has a residence and an office in the area, which has largely been sheltered from the shelling and battles that usually rage in the city’s impoverished suburbs. It was not clear if Assad has stayed in Malki recently.

This was the Syrian leader’s third public appearance in over a week as his regime tries to capitalise on recent gains on the battlefield against rebels fighting to oust him from power.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed the attack claims as “rumours” and told state TV that Assad drove his own car to the Anas bin Malik Mosque in the heart of Malki.

In the TV broadcast, Assad, dressed in a suit, was seen praying alongside Syria’s grand mufti at the start of the three-day holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan. Eid prayers are typically an hour or two after sunrise. In previous years, Assad has attended them in the early 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. The neighbourhood has rarely been targeted by opposition forces during the conflict that only last year saw the rebels bring their battle to the heart of the capital.

Syria’s state news agency said several mortar shells also hit the capital’s suburb that is home to the golden-domed Shia shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, killing five people and injuring 12 others. Meanwhile, the leader of Syria’s exiled opposition coalition attended holiday prayers in the southern province of Daraa. It was 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 the opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, but did not say in which mosque in Daraa he prayed.

In a video, posted on the Internet by the coalition, al-Jarba, dressed in a suit, is seen talking to people, surrounded by unarmed rebels wearing fatigues.