Syria Shows al-Assad Amid Speculation On His Whereabouts

By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)
By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)

(CNN)-- Syrian TV on Thursday showed video of President Bashar al-Assad, the first images broadcast of him since a deadly attack on top officials a day earlier.

The video, of al-Assad with newly named Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, came amid growing speculation about al-Assad's whereabouts. Some reports suggested he might have left the capital.

There was nothing in the video to indicate immediately when it was taken, but Syrian TV reported that al-Freij had taken his oath in front of al-Assad.

Although al-Assad has not often appeared on television or in public events during the near 17-month crisis gripping his country, it is unusual for a leader not to address a nation in the wake of a major bombing, and as violence rages in the capital city.

The blast at a government building in Damascus killed three top officials, one of whom also was the president's brother-in-law.

Rebel fighters on Thursday managed to gain control of a Syrian border crossing into Iraq, sources with the Iraqi army and police said. Iraq stepped up its security presence at the border as a precautionary measure, the sources said.

And rebels, at least for a time, seized at least part of a compound at the border with Turkey, according to Col. Malek al-Kurdi, deputy head of the rebel Free Syrian Army. There was a battle at the border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, and government forces withdrew from the new gate to an older gate, al-Kurdi said.

Videos posted to YouTube from inside a border station at the new gate showed a rebel tearing up a poster of al-Assad, while another rebel smashed portraits of the president and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who led the country previously.

Half a world away at U.N. headquarters in New York, numerous world leaders were slamming al-Assad's regime -- and condemning Russia and China for vetoing a new Security Council resolution aimed at halting the violence.

The two countries are "failing the people of Syria," said Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who was first to speak at the Security Council meeting after the vote. "The effect of their actions is to protect a brutal regime."

Russia and China, which have major trade deals with Syria, have said they want more balanced resolutions that call on all sides to halt the violence.

Grant accused them of putting "their national interests ahead of the lives of millions of Syrians." And he said they are relying on al-Assad's "broken promises."

It marked the third time in 10 months that the two countries blocked tough resolutions focused on al-Assad's regime.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said those two countries' previous two vetoes were "very destructive," and that this latest one is "even more dangerous and deplorable."

Russia, China veto sanctions on Syria

"Despite paranoid, if not disingenuous, claims to the contrary, it would in no way authorize nor even pave the way for foreign military intervention" she said.

The resolution would have given the U.N. mission to Syria "a fighting chance to accomplish its mandate," she argued.

Russia shot back that the vote should never have taken place.

Russia had "very clearly and consistently explained" that it would not accept a resolution that "would open the path for pressure of sanctions and further to extend military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations.

Western diplomats "could have done something, anything, to promote dialogue" rather than "fan the flames of extremists," he said.

He described the draft resolution as "biased," saying it threatened sanctions exclusively at the Syrian government.

China's U.N. ambassador Li Baodong said his country is also "highly concerned" about the violence, but the draft resolution was "seriously problematic," because it intended to pressure only one side in the conflict. It would not help resolve the issue, "but derail the issue from the track of political segment," further aggravating turmoil, he argued.

Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari slammed the council for not issuing an official condemnation of Wednesday's bombing, although he noted that Kofi Annan, joint envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, condemned it.

The lack of an official condemnation by the council indicates that talk of "supporting a peaceful solution in Syria is but a slogan," Jaafari argued.

He said the "Syrian people alone" should decide their future "without foreign intervention."

He rejected a "misleading picture" of Syria as a tyrannical regime killing its people and said a solution should be found through a "political process that satisfies the Syrian people." All will participate to help "establish democracy" and "free elections," he insisted.

The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

When asked later about Jaafari's complaint, France's U.N. ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel said, "We have always condemned terrorism, so I think there is no ambiguity." He added that the attack highlights the need for an end to the bloodshed.

At least 134 people were killed Thursday, including 40 in Damascus suburbs and 15 inside Damascus, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. The Damascus suburb Qaboon was under heavy fire Thursday, according to an opposition activist.

Video: Fighting rages around Damascus

Residents trying to flee the violence have nowhere to go because clashes are raging in most of Damascus province, said Omar al-Dimashki, a spokesman for the Revolution Leadership Council of Damascus.

"It is surrounded by tanks, and anything that moves is currently being shelled, and rockets are falling on the homes," he said.

Sander van Hoorn, a journalist in Damascus with Dutch TV network NOS, a CNN affiliate, said, "One hour it can be quiet and the next hour all hell breaks loose."

Syria, which blames the violence on "armed terrorist groups," said it "repelled" some groups that attempted to enter Syria from Lebanon on Wednesday night.

The regime said Wednesday's bombing was carried out by people "implementing foreign plots."

The Syrian military issued a statement stressing its "resolution to decisively eliminating the criminal and murder gangs and chasing them out of their rotten hideouts wherever they are until clearing the homeland of their evils," state-run news agency SANA said.

Anyone who thinks that targeting leaders will "twist Syria's arms is 'deluded,'" the statement said, according to SANA.

Video: Syria government says it will fight back

The officials killed in the blast were the defense minister; the deputy defense minister, who is the president's brother-in-law; and al-Assad's security adviser and assistant vice president, state TV reported.

The deputy head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Col. Malek al-Kurdi, said the attack was coordinated by rebel brigades. But some other rebel commanders say it's unclear who was behind the attack.

As violence has raged in what the Red Cross now declares to be a civil war across the country, world leaders have stepped up diplomatic efforts.

Annan traveled to Moscow this week in hopes of winning support from Russia for tough action at the Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to discuss the Syrian situation, the White House said in a statement Wednesday.

But Thursday's Security Council vote showed those diplomatic efforts had failed.

Western countries were pushing for a resolution that threatened new sanctions if government forces don't stop attacks against civilians.

Pakistan and South Africa abstained from voting.

The resolution also called for renewing the 300-member U.N. observer mission for 45 days after it was suspended because of violence.

Russia put forward its own draft, which "strongly urges all parties in Syria to cease immediately all armed violence in all its forms."

See the Syria crisis in photos

Since the crisis began in March 2011, the United Nations estimates, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the violence; the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria estimates that more than 16,000 have died.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports of violence in the nation because the government restricts access by foreign journalists.

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