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 few remaining pillars of support for Assad among the majority Sunni sect that has risen up against him.
It also marks a new low in the Syrian civil war: Though 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 broadcast regularly 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 mainly Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of the regime since the early days of Assad’s father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, providing Sunni cover and legitimacy to their rule. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“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.