BEIRUT A suicide bomb ripped through a mosque in the heart of the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and outspoken supporter of President Bashar Assad in one of the most stunning assassinations of Syria’s 2-year-old civil war. At least 41 others were killed and more than 84 wounded.
The slaying of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the key remaining pillars of support for Assad among the majority Sunni sect.
It also marks a new low in the Syrian civil war: While suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common, Thursday’s attack was the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
A prolific writer whose sermons were regularly broadcast on TV, the 84-year-old al-Buti was killed while giving a religious lesson to students at the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus.
The most senior religious figure to be killed in Syria’s civil war, his assassination was a major blow to Syria’s embattled leader, who is fighting rebels backed by the West and its Arab allies. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of the regime, providing Sunni cover and legitimacy to his rule.
“The blood of Sheik al-Buti will be a fire that ignites all the world,” said Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country’s top state-appointed Sunni Muslim cleric and an Assad loyalist.
Syrian TV showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the mosque’s blood-stained floor, and later, corpses covered in white body bags lined up in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.
Among those killed was al-Buti’s grandson, the TV said.
Last month, a car bomb that struck in the same area killed at least 53 people and wounded more than 200 others in one of the deadliest Damascus bombings of the civil war.
A small, frail man, al-Buti was well known in the Arab world as a religious scholar and longtime imam at the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque, a Damascus landmark. State TV said he has written 60 books and religious publications.
In recent months, Syrian TV has carried al-Buti’s sermons from mosques in Damascus live every week. He also has a regular religious TV program.
Syrian TV began its evening newscast with an announcement from the religious endowments minister, Mohammad Abdelsattar al-Sayyed, declaring al-Buti’s “martyrdom” as his voice choked up. It then showed parts of al-Buti’s sermon from last Friday, in which he praised the military for battling the “mercenaries sent by America and the West” and said Syria was being subjected to a “universal conspiracy.”
Assad’s regime refers to the rebels fighting against it as “terrorists” and “mercenaries” who are backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the country.
The rebels are composed of dozens of groups, including the powerful al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but it has retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled over into Israeli communities on the Golan Heights.
The Golan front has been mostly quiet since 1974, a year after Syria and Israel fought a war.
Assad says Syria will wipe out attackers
President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Friday to purge Syria of “extremist forces” he accused of assassinating a leading Sunni Muslim cleric who backed his two-year battle against US backed rebels.
Assad made the pledge in a message of condolence over the death of Mohammed al-Buti, who was killed along with dozens of worshippers by an explosion in a Damascus mosque on Thursday.
“The platform of the Umayyad Mosque as well as the whole Islamic Nation are going to miss you, as you carried along the real message of Islam,” Assad said.
It slammed the killers of Dr. al-Bouti as attempting to silence “the voice of Islam and the light of faith” in the face of “the forces of dark and the takfiri extremist thinking.”
“Your blood … and that of all Syrian martyrs will not be shed in vain,” Assad said. “We will adhere to your thinking to eliminate their darkness and extremism until we purge our country of them.” Compiled from agencies
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