JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Millions of Muslims began celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday with morning prayers followed by savory high-calorie feasts to mark the holiday, amid concerns over violence.
In Syria, mortars pounded an upscale district of Damascus in the same area where President Bashar Assad was attending holiday prayers at a mosque. A rebel brigade claimed on its Facebook and Twitter pages that it hit the motorcade, but the information minister denied the attack and state TV showed Assad at the mosque.
The Eid al-Fitr holiday includes three days of festivities after a month of prayer and dawn-to-dusk fasting for Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex as a way to test their faith. But despite Eid's peaceful message, some countries remained on heightened alert amid fears over violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a moment after Eid prayers in a speech to thank security forces fighting the insurgency and called for the Taliban to lay down their arms, stop killing and join the political process.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, throngs of believers donning brand new clothes made their way to mosques. The holiday is also a time of reflection, forgiveness and charity — cars were seen driving around the capital, Jakarta, carrying people handing out envelopes to the poor.
Fireworks exploded across Jakarta throughout Wednesday night, with hundreds of people gathering at a landmark downtown traffic circle to watch the impromptu displays.
Still, Indonesian authorities were on high alert after a small bomb exploded in Jakarta earlier this week outside a Buddhist temple packed with devotees praying. Only one person was injured, but two other devices failed to detonate. Officials have said the attack appears to have been carried out by militant Muslims angry over sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Indonesia's National Police chief, Gen. Timur Pradopo, said he mobilized thousands of officers to help safeguard the millions involved in the mass exodus across the country, an archipelago of some 17,000 islands. Police also stood guard at mosques, churches and temples in many cities.
In Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, about 100 Muslims braved a stormy morning to pray at the city's sole mosque, on the edge of the old quarter. The Vietnamese imam gave a sermon in Arabic and then English to the congregation, which comprised mainly expatriates. Vietnam is also home to some 60,000 indigenous Muslims, most of them in the south.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines on Thursday, the military clashed with fighters from the militant Muslim group Abu Sayyaf, killing one soldier and an estimated seven militants, said local army commander Col. Carlito Galvez. The operation was based on information that the group was building bombs to be used in attacks in southern cities at the end of Ramadan. The latest violence follows two weeks of bomb attacks across the volatile southern Philippines that has killed 16 people and wounded about 100.
Thailand's security agencies have also warned about more frequent, escalated insurgency attacks at the end of the Ramadan period in the three Muslim-dominated southernmost provinces that border with Malaysia, despite its ongoing peace talks with Muslim separatists facilitated by its southern neighbor.
"The end of Ramadan is the period the insurgents will attempt to show off their strategies and attacks," said Col. Jaroon Ampha, an adviser to the National Security Council.
Muslims believe God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan, which starts with the sighting of the new moon. The Muslim lunar calendar moves back through the seasons, meaning Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year under the Western calendar.
Not all countries begin celebrations on the same day. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, are expected to officially begin Eid on Friday after the moon is sighted there. However, the holiday was celebrated Thursday with dancing in the streets and firing guns in the air in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country, after officials there urged residents to begin the festivities after the moon had been sighted in Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos and Andi Jatmiko in Jakarta, Indonesia; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok; Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Vietnam; Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan; and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.