Muslims celebrate Eid with prayers, feasts to mark end of Ramadan

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 looming across parts of the region and elsewhere worldwide.

In Syria, mortars pounded an upscale district of Damascus in the same area where President Bashar Assad was attending Eid prayers at a mosque. It was not clear if he was targeted, but a government official told state TV Assad was not affected.

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.

Despite Eid's peaceful message, some countries remained on heightened alert amid fears over violence.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai took a moment after Eid prayers in a speech to thank security forces for their sacrifices in the war against 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 made their way to mosques donning brand new clothes. The holiday is also a time of reflection, forgiveness and charity - cars were seen driving around the capital, Jakarta, handing out envelopes to the poor.

Fireworks exploded all night across Jakarta on Wednesday night, with hundreds gathering in a landmark traffic circle downtown to watch the impromptu displays.

Still, Indonesian authorities were on high alert after a small bomb exploded outside a Buddhist temple packed with devotees praying in Jakarta earlier this week. 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 the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, about 100 Muslims braved a stormy morning to pray at the city's sole mosque on the edge of the city's old quarter. The Vietnamese imam gave a sermon in Arabic and then English to the congregation, most of whom were expatriates. Vietnam is also home to some 60,000 indigenous Muslims, most of them in the south.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines government troops and police strengthened security in the southern province of Maguindanao and outlying regions due to a spate of deadly bombings and other attacks during Ramadan that were blamed on a breakaway Muslim group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement. The group, which authorities say has about 200 armed fighters, opposes peace talks between the government and the main insurgent group.

The hard-line rebels have vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the volatile south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.

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 the ongoing peace talks with Muslim separatists facilitated by its southern neighbor.

The separatist negotiators of the militant National Revolution Front vowed at the beginning of the Islamic fasting month that they would attempt to halt the attacks throughout the period, while Thai authorities had cut back their searches for insurgents but the unrest pursued.

In one of the most high-profile attacks this week, a well-respected Muslim cleric who is known to sympathize with Thai authorities in their bid to end the violence was shot dead at a local market on Monday. Six security officers and five civilians were injured in three other attacks on the same day.

"The end of Ramadan is the period the insurgents would 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.

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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; and Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh contributed to this report.

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