ALEPPO - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance for the holiday of Eid on Sunday as activists staged protests across the country to rage against the regime.
But despite the religious holiday, his forces were still in deadly action on the ground, shelling several rebel hubs across the country and clashing with armed opposition fighters in Damascus itself, a watchdog said.
Helicopters dropped leaflets over Aleppo urging residents not to shelter rebels and warning the Free Syrian Army it had one last chance to surrender. Some of the leaflets dropped late Saturday, in what rebels and residents said was a first, were designed as official-looking checkpoints passes for supporters of the rebels wishing to surrender.
“The holder of this pass is allowed to cross security forces checkpoints to surrender. The holder of this pass will be well treated and reunited with his family after verifications are conducted,” the leaflet read.
The leaflets were met by the disbelief and laughter of the rebels who picked them off the streets.
Six children, one as young as five and including four from the same extended family, were killed when shells struck near their home in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in the northwestern province of Idlib, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In all, at least 48 people died in violence on the first day of Eid, the festival celebrated by Muslims across the world to mark the end of the holy month of Ramazan, the group said.
UN observers were winding up their troubled mission on Sunday in the face of the escalating violence and a failure by world powers to agree on how to tackle Assad and bring about peace to the strategically vital Middle East state.
Syrians joined prayers and staged demonstrations for Eid, taking place for the second year under the shadow of a conflict the Observatory says has now claimed 23,000 lives while the UN gives a toll of 17,000.
Several families said they would not make the traditional visit to cemeteries to place flowers on the tombs of departed loved ones because of security fears.
“The children in the Old City district are sad because there are no sweets, no food, no gifts, no new clothes this Eid,” added a young man from the central city of Homs who gave his name as Abu Bilal.
While demonstrators took to the streets to call for the fall of the regime after 17 months of conflict, Assad himself joined top government and ruling Baath party officials at Eid prayers in Al-Hamad mosque.
“Syria will triumph against the Western-American plot being supported by the Wahhabis and takfiris (Sunni Muslim religious hardliners),” said imam Sheikh Mohammed Kheir Ghantus, echoing the regime’s long-standing rhetoric.
Meanwhile, press reports said British and German spies were involved in covert operations to help Syrian rebels.
“We can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime,” an official from Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service told Bild am Sonntag.
The paper said German spies were stationed off the Syrian coast and also active at a Nato base in Turkey, a one-time Syria ally whose government is now staunchly opposed to Assad and is sheltering Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
Britain’s Sunday Times said British intelligence was helping rebels launch successful attacks on government forces with information gathered from their listening posts in nearby Cyprus.
It said the most valuable intelligence has been about the movements of troops towards the flashpoint commercial hub of Aleppo, which is now partly controlled by rebels and is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.
The regime’s far superior military might has failed to suppress the armed rebels, whose determination to bring Assad down has only grown with the passing of time despite a shortage of heavy arms.
What began as a peaceful uprising has descended into an armed revolt with fighting reaching the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo and atrocities reported on both sides, but particularly by the regime.
The West is demanding that Assad step down as part of any political deal but is opposed by Syria’s traditional allies in Moscow and Beijing which see it as foreign-imposed regime change. The UN observer mission is due to end Sunday, just days after new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was named to replace Kofi Annan.
Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat, has won support from the West as well as China and Russia, and even Syria itself, although the White House said it would be seeking clarifications on the terms of his mandate.
But the opposition Syrian National Council lashed out at reported comments by Brahimi that it was too soon for him to say Assad should go, saying the remarks were a “licence to kill tens of thousands more Syrians.”
Amid Western speculation that more top officials were ready to abandon Assad, Syrian state television insisted that Vice President Faruk al-Shara had not left the country after opposition reports he had defected.
A former deputy oil minister who defected in March said Shara, the regime’s top Sunni Muslim official, was actually under house arrest.
Among those to have abandoned the regime are former prime minister Riad Hijab and high profile general Manaf Tlass, while Assad’s defence minister and three top security chiefs were killed in the July bomb attack claimed by the FSA.