DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Rockets and mortar shells hit an upscale Damascus neighborhood Thursday where Syrian President Bashar Assad was visiting a nearby mosque, laying bare the ability of rebels to strike one of the most secure areas of the capital despite an ongoing government offensive.
At least two rebel brigades claimed to have hit Assad's motorcade on its way to the mosque, but this appeared to be untrue. Two opposition figures said the route was hit but not the convoy itself. The regime also denied the reports, and state TV broadcast images of Assad praying at the mosque.
There were no reports of casualties or damage in the shelling of the Malki district, a largely pro-regime neighborhood where Assad used to live before the uprising began more than two years ago. Nevertheless, the attack terrified residents and exposed the regime's vulnerability as it tries to maintain momentum against rebels with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. It may also shake its confidence.
"What happened today is highly indicative," said Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for Syria's main Western-backed opposition group. "It shows that the regime is unable to control the situation even in the most secure areas of Damascus and despite suffocating security measures."
At least two Syrian rebel brigades claimed they hit Assad's motorcade as it carried him to the Anas bin Malik mosque in Malki, an affluent district sealed off by military checkpoints that had been largely spared from rebel mortar shells that frequently hit other areas of the capital. It was not clear if Assad has stayed in Malki in recent months or where he lives now.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed the claims as "rumors" and told state TV that Assad drove his own car to the mosque, located in the heart of Malki. "The news is completely baseless and a mere reflection of the wishes and illusions of some media outlets and the governments standing behind them," al-Zoubi said, referring to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel, which first broadcast the report.
In the state TV broadcast, Assad, dressed in a suit, was seen praying alongside Syria's grand mufti at the start of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was not possible to determine if the footage was filmed before or after the attack.
The Eid prayers typically take place an hour or two after sunrise. In previous years, Assad has been seen attending them early in the morning. Residents confirmed shelling in the area around the time Assad would have been attending the morning prayers, but could not say whether Assad's motorcade had been hit.
"The sounds were terrifying. We started the first day of Eid with at least 10 mortar shells falling around us," said a 71-year-old man. He and other residents said army jet fighters were seen flying over the area following the morning barrage. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.
Anas bin Malik mosque is located only few hundred meters from where the closest shells landed. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said he had no confirmation that Assad's motorcade had been hit and was skeptical of the reports.
Two Syrian opposition figures said the shells struck Assad's motorcade route — one of them said the motorcade had to change direction — but not the convoy itself. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not wish to reveal the source of their information.
Capt. Islam Alloush of the Liwaa al-Islam rebel brigade claimed responsibility, saying there were casualties among Assad's entourage. Another brigade, Liwaa Tahrir al-Sham, said it fired several 120 mm shells in the direction of Assad's motorcade after carrying out careful surveillance of its route.
The claim was posted on the group's Facebook and Twitter pages. The brigade's head, Firas al-Bitar, told Al-Arabiya TV that the motorcade had been hit but that it was not certain whether Assad himself had been harmed.
Alloush claimed in an interview with The Associated Press via Skype that Assad was not hit but that several people in his entourage were killed or wounded. "We had promised the Syrian people a big operation for Eid and we have delivered," he said.
Rebels have claimed attacks against Assad or members of his government in the past that turned out to be false. Thursday marked the Syrian leader's third public appearance in over a week as his regime tries to capitalize on recent gains on the battlefield against rebels fighting to oust him from power.
Official Syrian media did not report the rebel attack on Malki. The state news agency reported, however, that several mortar shells hit a Damascus suburb that is home to the golden-domed Shiite shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, killing five people and wounding 12 others. The shrine is named after the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter and is popular with Iranian worshippers and tourists. Syria's civil war has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the past year, pitting overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Also Thursday, the leader of Syria's exiled opposition coalition attended holiday prayers in Daraa, a southern province where regime forces have battled rebels. It was Ahmad al-Jarba's second trip inside the country since he was elected head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition last month.
In a video posted by the coalition, al-Jarba, dressed in a suit, is seen talking to people, surrounded by unarmed rebels wearing fatigues. Saleh, the coalition's spokesman, said the attack on Malki and al-Jarba's visit to Daraa are "two strong messages" that emphasize a shift in favor of the rebels in the past few days.
The Syrian uprising started in Daraa in March 2011 as protests against Assad's rule. The largely peaceful revolt turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown. More than 100,000 people have been killed.
Assad's troops have recently been on the offensive in central Syria, making advances near the border with Lebanon and in the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. They have also fought pockets of resistance around the capital, and on Wednesday ambushed a large group of rebels trudging through a desert road northeast of Damascus, killing more than 60 fighters.
Rebels, however, have made advances in the past week in the north, where they succeeded in taking over an air base after months of fighting. They also seized a string of Alawite villages this week in the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.
On Thursday, the Observatory reported that rebels broke into the Kweiras military air base in Aleppo province and were fighting Assad's troops inside. The rebels had been besieging the facility for months.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.