Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid an Easter Sunday visit to a historic Christian town newly recaptured from jihadist-backed rebels, as opposition fighters counterattacked his forces in the key city of Homs.
The surprise visit to Maalula, north of Damascus, came as Pope Francis said in his Easter message that it is time for Syria’s warring parties to “boldly negotiate” peace after three years of conflict estimated to have killed 150,000 people.
Al-Assad’s regime has sought to portray itself as protecting religious minorities from foreign-backed extremists, a notion his opponents dismiss as part of a divide-and-rule strategy also aimed at deterring Western support for rebels.
State TV showed al-Assad, who has rarely appeared in public during the conflict, visiting Maalula’s Saint Sergius and Bacchus monastery damaged by “terrorists” — Damascus’ term for its armed opponents.
“No people anywhere have ever had to face what Syria is facing today. Your unity ... is what secured these victories,” al-Assad told his forces.
State media said al-Assad also visited the nearby village of Ain al-Tineh, where dozens of people cheered his name.
“However much they [the rebels] destroy [Syria] ... we will build it... Together we build it, together we protect it, together we will make it better and more beautiful,” he told the gathering.
In Homs, rebels went on the counterattack, taking buildings in regime-held areas nearly a week after al-Assad’s forces launched a ground attack to reclaim besieged areas that are the opposition’s last remaining stronghold in the city.
The counteroffensive began after jihadist group al-Nusra Front — a rebel ally — killed five Syrian troops in a suicide car bomb attack on Saturday in the same area.
Only a handful of districts in the heart of Homs, referred to by activists as “the capital of the revolution,” remain under rebel control.
As the fighting raged, parliamentary speaker Mohamed Jihad al-Laham yesterday said a presidential election will be held on June 3. Al-Assad has not said if he will run, but his allies in Russia and in Hezbollah predict he will stand and win.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande said his government had “information,” but no firm proof that the al-Assad regime was still using chemical weapons.
Under a US-Russia brokered deal, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical arms to ward off the threat of US air strikes.
Hollande’s statement came as four French journalists taken hostage in Syria were reunited with loved ones in an emotional homecoming after 10 months in captivity.