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Assad commends forces; rebels destroy weapons depot

| Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

Syrian President Bashar Assad put on a show of confidence on Thursday, releasing photos of a visit to a war-scarred suburb of the capital and praising his troops' recent battlefield gains, even as a huge explosion shook the central city of Homs and offered a reminder of the rebels' ability to strike back.

Assad looked relaxed in a suit and open-collared shirt, according to footage and images released by state media, as he visited with soldiers in the suburb of Darayya during a rare public appearance outside Damascus to mark Syria's armed forces' day. Talking to the troops there, he commended the army for its progress against opposition forces in central and southern Syria.

The cracks in Assad's control of the country were underscored, however, as a blast struck a government-controlled area of Homs, sending a huge fireball into the air and killing at least 40 people, according to opposition groups, some of which said that tally included only soldiers, with scores more dead. Activists also said that footage and images of Assad's visit to Darayya, which the government claims it captured this year, were taken on its outskirts and the area remains contested.

After 2 years, the conflict in Syria has claimed more than 100,000 lives, according to the United Nations, and devastated the country's economy.

Assad described it as the “most barbaric war” in modern history and touted his troops' ability to prevent the government's ouster far longer than many in the international community had expected.

“You have stunned the whole world with your steadfastness and your ability to face challenges and score achievements,” he said.

The location Assad chose to visit was symbolic. Once a bastion of the revolution, Darayya was the site of an alleged massacre by Assad's forces last year as hundreds of bodies — some showing signs of summary execution, according to the United Nations — were found after government troops advanced.

Sama Masoud, an activist based in the Damascus suburbs, dismissed Assad's visit as a propaganda stunt, saying Darayya is split, with the government and rebels each controlling roughly half.

“The area where the photographs were taken is meters away from the gates of the Mezzeh military airport on the western side, the areas of regime control,” she said, adding that it is protected from snipers by high buildings and near a long-standing government checkpoint.

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