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Assad makes rare visit to front-line Damascus suburb

In this photo released on the official Facebook page of Syrian Presidency, Syrian president Bashar Assad, center left, visits a shelter of internally displaced people in the Damascus suburb of Adra, Syria, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

DAMASCUS: In a rare public appearance, President Bashar Assad Wednesday visited displaced Syrians in a frontline suburb of the country’s capital, where he vowed to keep up the fight against gunmen whom he blamed for driving people from their homes, state TV said.

The visit to a shelter for displaced people in the Damascus suburb of Adra, just northeast of the capital, coincides with advances by his troops battling rebels who captured parts of the suburb in December, displacing thousands from the area.

The visit comes nearly four months before Assad’s seven-year term officially expires. Syrian officials have said the presidential elections would be held on time, according to the constitution.

Assad has suggested he would run again but has not confirmed it. The election must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s term ends on July 17.

The visit to Adra was Assad’s first public appearance outside Damascus since August, when he toured the suburb of Daraya, once a rebel stronghold, and in the same week took part in a public iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the month of Ramadan.

“The state will continue to fight terrorism and terrorists who displace people from their homes and commit ugly crimes against them,” Assad said. His government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists.

Photos released by the president’s office showed Assad speaking to women, several of whom were carrying children in their arms. One photo showed Assad putting his hand on the shoulder of a child who was lying on a mattress.

“The government will continue to provide for the main needs of the displaced until they all return to their homes, whether in Adra or other areas,” state TV quoted Assad as saying.

Also Wednesday, Syria’s parliament met to discuss a new election law that allows candidates to run for president and allows at least in theory for opening the country’s political system. It allows for a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath party since it took power in a coup in 1963. It was not immediately clear when the lawmakers would vote on the bill.

“Parliament Members will discuss every paragraph of the draft law that covers presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections,” legislator Fayez Sayegh told the Associated Press by telephone.Meanwhile, the government has decided to close its embassies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because they have refused to accept the accreditations of its envoys, diplomats posted in Damascus said.

“Syria’s embassies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are to close because these countries have been refusing to accredit the diplomats sent by Damascus since the start of the crisis,” one of the sources said.

The monarchies of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the 3-year-old armed revolt in Syria and called for Assad’s ouster.

In the mountainous Qalamoun region north of Damascus, fierce clashes continued to rage near the town of Yabroud, pitting army troops, paramilitaries and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah against rebels and jihadists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven rebels were killed in the fighting, which saw them disable two regime vehicles. It said the regime side also suffered casualties, but did not specify a figure.

The town of Yabroud and surrounding areas were subjected to heavy artillery shelling, which killed one civilian, while further south, fierce clashes erupted in the Wadi Barada region. The Observatory said that at least 10 regime troops were killed and wounded in the fighting.

Tuesday’s nationwide death toll stood at 221 people, the Observatory said, adding that 33 of them were killed by the Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

It said the death toll from a massacre discovered near the town of Jarablus in Aleppo province rose to 25 people, while the death toll from a triple suicide bomb attack in the northeastern town of Qamishli, also carried out by ISIS militants Tuesday, rose to nine.

Thousands of people in the Kurdish-majority town attended the funeral of the victims which coincided with the annual commemoration of a 2004 uprising in Kurdish areas.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 13, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

The visit comes nearly four months before Assad's seven-year term officially expires.

The election must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad's term ends on July 17 .

The visit to Adra was Assad's first public appearance outside Damascus since August, when he toured the suburb of Daraya, once a rebel stronghold, and in the same week took part in a public iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the month of Ramadan.

Photos released by the president's office showed Assad speaking to women, several of whom were carrying children in their arms.

The Observatory said that at least 10 regime troops were killed and wounded in the fighting.


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