In this Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad delivers a speech at an Iftar dinner with political and religious figures in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA)
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Mortar rounds hit an upscale district of Damascus on Thursday as Syrian state TV broadcast images of President Bashar Assad attending prayers in the same area of the capital to mark the start of a Muslim holiday.
It was unclear if the shelling of Malki district was connected to Assad's visit to the neighborhood's Anas bin Malik Mosque. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the president and his convoy were not affected by the mortar attacks, telling state TV that Assad drove his own car to the mosque.
It was 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.
On Wednesday, Syrian government troops ambushed a large group of rebels trudging through a desert road northeast of Damascus, killing more than 60 fighters.
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 holy month of Ramadan. The TV said Assad attended prayers in the Anas bin Malik Mosque in Damascus early on Thursday. The Eid prayers are typically an hour or two after sunrise. In previous years, Assad has been seen attending them early in the morning.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said three mortar shells hit Malki district early in the morning. The neighborhood has rarely been targeted by opposition forces during the conflict, which last year brought the rebels and their battle to the heart of the capital. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage in the shelling.
Syria's state news agency said several mortar shells also hit the capital's suburb that is home to the golden-domed Shiite shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, which is popular with Iranian worshippers and tourists. The attacks caused casualties, the SANA news agency said, but gave no details.
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 and Syria's third largest city.
In the north, where much of the territory has been under opposition control in the past year, rebels scored a rare victory earlier this week when they captured a major air base in the Aleppo province near the border with Turkey.
Syria's crisis started as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad's rule in March 2011. It 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 in the violence so far, according to U.N. figures.
Surk reported from Beirut.
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