Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared on television for the first time in two weeks in footage showing him meeting Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, in Damascus.

Mr Assad's appearance came the day after his prime minister defected to rebels who have been waging a 17-month campaign to oust him.

The president’s absence had fuelled rumours about his health, including a hoax Twitter message last night that quoted Russia's ambassador to Damascus as saying Mr Assad might have been killed.

Russian officials quickly denied the report.

In the week after an 18 July bombing that killed four members of his inner circle, Mr Assad was shown twice in silent footage on television, swearing in a new defence minister and meeting military officials.

The defection of prime minister Riyad Hijab has been viewed by Western powers as a sign that President Assad's regime is crumbling.

Mr Hijab, like most of the opposition, is from the Sunni Muslim majority.

His departure is viewed as an illustration of the isolation of Mr Assad's government around an inner core of powerful members of his minority Alawite sect.

Opposition figures are buoyant despite setbacks in recent weeks with fighting around Damascus and Aleppo.

They spoke of an extensive and long-planned operation to get Mr Hijab and his large extended family across the border to Jordan.

Meanwhile, mortar fire and tank shells have exploded across Aleppo forcing rebel fighters to take cover in crumbling buildings and rubble-strewn alleyways.

Tanks have entered parts of Salaheddine and army snipers, using the cover of heavy bombardment, deployed on rooftops, hindering rebel movements.