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THE MIDEAST

Syria's Assad makes rare public appearance at mosque

Aug. 17, 2012: A Syrian man walks by a building destroyed in an airstrike in Aleppo city, Syria.

Syria's state-run TV aired footage of President Bashar Assad performing Eid prayers in a mosque in Damascus on Sunday, his first appearance in public after a bombing in the Syrian capital last month that killed the country's defense minister and three other top security officials.

Assad was shown praying at the city's Rihab al-Hamad Mosque to mark the start of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday that follows the holy month of Ramadan. The last time Assad appeared in public was on July 4 when he gave a speech in parliament.

Since then, there has been a sharp escalation in the country's civil war with almost daily fighting in some districts of the capital between security forces and rebels seeking to topple Assad.

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 five killed offcials.

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.

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. On Saturday, his office denied the reports and said al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country."

Al-Sharaa did not appear in the footage at the mosque with Assad.