BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad made his first appearance in public since a July bombing that killed four top security officials, attending prayers at a Damascus mosque yesterday, marking the start of Eid Al Fitr, state TV showed.
The first day of Eid also gave his opponents a chance to rally and activists reported protests around Syria, including in the capital.
Battling a 17-month-old uprising against 42 years of rule by his family, Assad was filmed at prayer with new Prime Minister Wael Al Halqi and Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem but not with Vice-President Farouq Al Shara, 73, whose reported defection was denied the previous day.
Assad's appearances on state TV had previously been restricted to footage of him conducting official business.
He was pictured sitting cross-legged at a mosque in the Damascus residential district of Muhajirin, listening to a sermon in which Syria was described as a victim of "terrorism" and a conspiracy hatched by the US, Israel, the West and Arabs.
Imam Sheikh Mohammad Kheir Ghantous said the plot would not "defeat our Islam, our ideology and our determination".
With diplomatic efforts to end the war hampered by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria is facing the prospect of a prolonged conflict that threatens to destabilise the Middle East with its sectarian overtones, pitting a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has replaced former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, whose six-point plan to stop violence and advance towards negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took root.
The conflict has deepened since then.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said 37 civilians were killed yesterday, reporting fighting in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere.
Videos posted by activists on YouTube showed protests in and around the capital. "Oh martyr, your blood will not go to waste," chanted protesters in Qudsia, a Damascus neighbourhood.
"The people want divine protection," chanted others in another video, showing a protest at Yabrud, north of Damascus.
Forces have resorted to air power to hold back lightly armed insurgents in Damascus and Aleppo, the largest city and business hub.
Aleppo has been the theatre for some of the heaviest recent fighting. Rebels hold several districts in the city and have tried to push back against an army counter-offensive.
UN investigators said last week that forces and allied militia had committed war crimes, including murder and the torture of civilians in what seemed to be state-directed policy.
They said insurgents had also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a smaller scale.
State TV said forces had thwarted attempts by armed groups to infiltrate Syria from Lebanon, whose fragile stability has been put under strain by the conflict next door.
Diplomats said Brahimi will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria, to distance him from Annan, who complained that his plan was crippled by splits between Western powers, who want Assad out and Russia, his weightiest ally, and China in the UN Security Council.
Brahimi described the situation as "absolutely terrible".
He said he urgently needed to clarify what support the UN can give him.
But he drew criticism from the opposition over a statement that it was too early to say if Assad should step down, in apparent contrast to Annan who said it was clear the leader "must leave office".
In remarks to Al Jazeera, Brahimi backed away from the comment, saying it was too early for him to say anything about his mission. "I was only appointed two days ago."