Suicide bomber kills top cleric, 41 others in mosque

BEIRUT — A suicide bomber blew himself up during evening prayers inside a mosque in Damascus on Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad and least 41 other people, state TV reported.

The assassination removes one of the few remaining pillars of support of the Alawite leader among the minority sect that has risen up against him.

Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric known to all Syrians as a religious scholar who appears often on TV, was killed in the explosion in the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district, according to the report.

Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war. But Thursday’s explosion marked the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.

Syrian TV showed footage wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor of the mosque and later, bodies covered in white body bags lined up on the mosque’s floor. The explosion occurred at a time the mosque would have been packed with worshipers for evening prayers.

Sirens echoed in the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.

Al-Buti’s death is a big blow to Syria’s embattled leader, who is fighting mainly Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of his regime since the early days of his father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad.