A suicide bombing has torn through a mosque in the Syrian capital, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and long-time supporter of President Bashar Assad along with at least 13 other people.
The assassination of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Alawite leader among the majority sect that has risen up against him.
The powerful explosion struck as al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric and religious scholar who appeared often on TV, was giving a religious lesson in the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus, according to state TV.
Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria's two-year-old civil war. But today's explosion marked the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
Syrian TV footage showed wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor and later, bodies 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.
Al-Buti's death was a blow to Syria's embattled leader, who is fighting mainly Sunni rebels seeking his removal. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of his regime since the early days of Assad's father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
He was the regular preacher of the eighth century Omayyad Mosque, but Syrian TV said he was giving a religious sermon to students at Eman Mosque when the explosion occurred. In recent months, Syrian TV has carried his sermon from mosques in Damascus live every week. He also has a regular religious TV programme.
Syrian TV began its evening newscast with a phone 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 his sermon last Friday in which he praised the military for battling the "mercenaries" 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 destabilise the country. The war, which the UN says has killed more than 70,000 people, has become increasingly chaotic as rebels press closer to Assad's seat of power in Damascus after seizing large swathes of territory in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
The rebels also captured a village and other territory on the edge of the Golan Heights on Thursday as fighting closed in on the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, activists and officials said.