Oct 4, 2014 4:45 AM
Embattled Syrian president makes rare appearance
The Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) Syrian President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance on Saturday by attending prayers for a key Muslim holiday at a mosque in the capital, Damascus, hours after the U.S.-led coalition carried out new airstrikes against Islamic State group militants in Syria.
The airstrikes targeted the militants' positions on Friday night in the eastern town of Shaddadeh, a stronghold of the Islamic State group in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh, according to activists.
The airstrikes caused casualties, the activists said, with one group saying as many as 30 Islamic State fighters were killed. It was the first time Shaddadeh was struck since the U.S.-led campaign began nearly two weeks ago. There was no immediate confirmation from Washington.
The United States and five Arab allies launched an aerial campaign against Islamic State group in Syria on Sept. 23 with the aim of rolling back and ultimately crushing the extremist group, which has created a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border. The militants have also massacred captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, terrorized minorities in both countries and beheaded two American journalists and two British aid workers.
About 30 explosions were heard in and near Shaddadeh on Friday night, according to an activist in Hassakeh province, who added that the targets included several buildings occupied by Islamic State fighters.
"There were deaths for sure," said the activist who goes by the name of Salar al-Kurdi. He spoke over Skype.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists around Syria, said as many as 30 fighters from the Islamic State group were killed in the airstrikes on Shaddadeh. It said all the dead were foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, intense fighting continued on the outskirts of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border, where Islamic State fighters have been trying to capture the town to open a direct link between their positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and their stronghold of Raqqa, to the east.
Kobani and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. The assault, which has forced some 160,000 Syrians to flee, has left the Kurdish militiamen scrambling to repel the militants' advance into the outskirts of the town, also known in Arabic as Ayn Arab.
The Observatory said fighting was focused Saturday on the southwestern edge of the town, adding that members of the Islamic State group were shelling Kobani.
From across the border in Turkey, sounds of heavy machine gun fire could be heard coming from Kobani. It was not immediately clear if the Islamic State group had entered the town itself, defended by fighters of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPK.
Earlier on Friday, the U.S.-led coalition had launched airstrikes near Kobani killing at least five members of the Islamic State group, according to the Observatory.
Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria's leading Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said the coalition airstrikes near Kobani had a "positive effect" and that the militants had failed to capture a strategic hill overlooking the town after five attacks.
In Turkey, a senior special forces police officer was wounded in the head from stray shrapnel from the fighting in Kobani, reported the private Dogan news agency. There was no immediate official confirmation of the incident. The news agency said the officer was being treated in hospital.
Also on the Turkish side, a group of about 200 activists marched toward the border with Syria on Saturday, chanting slogans in support of the Kurdish fighters in Kobani. Turkish troops stopped the group about 50 meters (yards) from the border, then fired tear gas to push them away from the frontier.
Meanwhile, Syrian state television aired footage of Assad praying on Saturday at the al-Numan Bin Bashir mosque in Damascus, along with government officials and the country's Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun as most Muslims around the world started celebrating the three-day holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.
During Syria's civil war, which is now in its fourth year and which activists say has killed more than 190,000 people, Assad has been making rare public appearances. Previously, he appeared in public in July, when he attended prayers for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Also Saturday, a mortar shell struck a park where families were celebrating Eid al-Adha in the northwestern city of Idlib, killing six people, including four children, the state SANA news agency reported.
Associated Press writers Mehmet Guzel in Suruc, Turkey, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.