AMMAN — Syrian rebels said on Thursday they targeted President Bashar al-Assad's motorcade heading to a Damascus mosque to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, but state television showed him unharmed and the government denied he had been attacked.
The Tahrir al-Sham rebel brigade, a unit of the Free Syrian Army, said it fired several artillery shells towards Assad's convoy in the heart of the capital and that at least some hit their target.
If confirmed, the attack would be one of the most direct against Assad in two years of conflict which have pitched mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the Alawite president.
Rebels have targeted Assad's residences in Damascus and a bombing in the capital last year killed four of his inner circle, but there have been no reports of Assad himself coming under fire.
Video footage distributed by the Tahrir al-Sham rebels showed smoke rising from what it said was the Malki district, where Assad and his close aides have homes. Other activists also reported rocket fire into the area.
Syria's government denied the reports. "The news is wholly untrue," Information Minister Omran Zoabi said.
Firas al-Bitar, head of the Tahrir al-Sham brigade, said his fighters had carried out reconnaissance of the route of Assad's motorcade and fired 120 mm artillery towards the president's convoy early on Thursday.
"The attack rattled the regime, even if Assad was not hit," he told Reuters from an undisclosed location in the capital. "There were two motorcades, one containing Assad and a decoy. We targeted the correct one."
Bitar's brigade operates mainly in the Ghouta region on the eastern outskirts of the capital. Another official in Tahrir al-Sham said Assad's forces fired rockets and artillery "like rain" on the region in response to the reported attack.
Following the statement, Syrian state television showed footage of Assad praying alongside ministers and other top officials. It said the footage was from Thursday's Eid prayers at the Anas bin Malek Mosque in Malki.
Assad appeared unharmed and smiled at the worshippers as he entered the mosque.
Islam Alloush of the Liwa al-Islam, another rebel brigade, told Reuters earlier on Thursday that rebels fired rockets which struck Assad's motorcade.
"Assad was not hit but the information we have based from sources within the regime is that there were casualties within his entourage," Allooush said.
Other activists also reported rockets were fired into the Malki area, which was sealed off by security forces.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)