Syrian TV shows images of Assad as battles rage on for control of Damascus


Syrian state television aired footage on Thursday of President Bashar al-Assad swearing in new defense minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij, the first images of the president since a bomb attack on Wednesday killed three senior official at a security meeting.

State television did not say where or when the footage was filmed but it will allay suspicions that Assad was killed in the attack, according to Reuters.

In the images, blue-clad Assad watches the swearing-in ceremony of Freij, who is in full military costume.

This was the first public sighting of Assad since a bomb attack in Damascus on Wednesday killed three top regime officials, including Freij’s predecessor, Daoud Rajha.

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, clashed with forces loyal to President Assad in Damascus, while across much of the city streets were deserted and houses and shops shuttered for fear of violence after Wednesday’s killing of three close Assad allies.

As many as 110 people have been killed by Syrian forces across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the General Revolution Commission.

Efforts to forge a diplomatic solution appeared to collapse when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened Syrian authorities with sanctions if they did not stop using heavy weapons and pull troops from towns.

Regime troops stormed a Damascus district with tanks on Thursday for the first time, five days on from the outbreak of fierce clashes in the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The army stormed the Qaboon district with a large number of tanks,” the Observatory’s Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

In Damascus, residents said the city appeared paralyzed. Some districts suffered heavy shelling.

Syrian TV flashed a warning on its screen, telling residents that gunmen disguised in Republican Guard uniforms were spreading through several of Damascus’s troubled districts, saying “they are planning to commit crimes and attack people.”

Activists also issued counter warnings, saying real Republican Guard forces were in Midan. “We tapped into their walkie-talkies ... we are afraid of a massacre,” said activist Samir al-Shami.

Assad, who had no made no public statement or appearance since the stunning bombing attack on a crisis meeting of his defense and security chiefs, was shown on Syrian television on Thursday at the swearing in of his new defense minister.

“Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal,” said a Western diplomat following Syria.

Residents said there was no let-up in the heaviest fighting -- now in its fifth day - to hit the Syrian capital in a 16-month revolt against Assad. His family has dominated for 42 years the pivotal Arab country bordering Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Western officials fear rising unrest in Syria, which some have called a civil war, could spill across its borders.

Residents said a heavy onslaught of security force shelling and firing from helicopters went through the night and continued on Thursday in Damascus. Some reported explosions in the troubled north-eastern and southern districts of the capital.

A witness said rebels attacked the main police headquarters in Damascus. “Gunfire has been intense for the past hour. It is now dying down but the streets around the police command remain empty,” said a resident of Qanawat, an old central district where the Damascus Province police headquarters is located.

Areas without fighting were largely deserted. Residents said the roads to many southern districts where fighting was heaviest were closed or peppered with checkpoints.

The streets of the city center were nearly empty and there was no trace of the rebels, even as the sound of fighting could be heard in several areas. Most shops were shuttered.

But in areas where there was fighting, some of it leaving a trail of bloody corpses in the streets, residents were nervous and confused.

“Everyone in the neighborhood is arming themselves. Some with machineguns, some with shotguns. Some even just with knives,” said one resident near the troubled Midan district.

“I can’t even tell you what is going on outside because I've shuttered the windows and locked the doors. I just hear every now and then the gunfire, it's like it's in the room,” said one resident who lived near the flashpoint Midan district.

A Western diplomat said Sweden, Denmark and Austria had pulled out diplomats temporarily from Damascus after Wednesday’s bombing. The three missions had already been operating with a limited staff with only one or two diplomats each on the ground. Most of them hoped to return next week, he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday “the decisive fight” was under way in Damascus.

The bombing on Wednesday seemed part of a coordinated assault on the capital that has escalated since the start of the week. Rebels call it the “liberation of Damascus” after months of fierce clashes which activists say have killed 17,000 people.

A security source said the bomber who struck inside the security headquarters was a bodyguard for Assad’s inner circle. Anti-Assad groups claimed responsibility.

People fleeing violent areas began searching for safe havens, some even taking refuge in the marble courtyards of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in Damascus’s historic Old City.

While fighting rages in Damascus, clashes and shelling have also continued across the country.

Rebels said they had “liberated” the town of Azaz in northern Aleppo province, bordering Turkey. Activists also published video of the town of Talbiseh, in central Homs province, being sprayed with gunfire from helicopters above.

Fighting also erupted near the Syrian-Israeli frontier, and Israel promptly responded saying it would not accept refugees.

“In the event of the regime’s downfall, which could happen... (Israeli forces) here are alert and ready, and if we have to stop waves of refugees, we will stop them,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.