Middle East

Syria mosque blast: Pro-Assad cleric among dozens dead

One of the most prominent Sunni supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been killed in a blast at a mosque in the capital, Damascus.

At least 41 other people were killed alongside Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti at the Iman mosque, said the Sana news agency, calling it "a terrorist" blast.

State TV broadcast footage of bodies and injured people at the scene.

The Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for the rebel forces, said it was not responsible for the attack.

State media said the blast, in the Mazraa district of the capital, was carried out by a suicide bomber who had slipped inside the mosque.

Mr Buti, 84, was killed as he was giving religious lessons at the mosque, it said. His grandson was also reportedly killed.

"We suddenly heard the explosion. We ran inside the mosque and we found the people torn into pieces," one witness said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, earlier said at least 15 civilians had been killed and dozens wounded.

An opposition activist network, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), initially put the number of dead at 20. It said the area had been "under the full control of the regime forces" at the time.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said they did not take "any responsibility for this operation".

"We do not do these types of suicide bombings and we do not target mosques," Loay Maqdad told al-Arabiya television.

Psychological blow

Mr Buti was a Sunni Muslim - the majority sect in Syria, who have led the uprising against Mr Assad, who is an Alawite - but had been a vocal supporter of the president.

He regularly preached on Syrian TV, and had urged Syrians to support the army against the rebels.

The loss will be a huge psychological blow to the Assad government, says the BBC's Jim Muir, reporting from Beirut.

Image caption The Syrian Opposition Council said it condemned the assassination

Mr Buti was a regime loyalist to the core, he adds, having led the prayers at the funeral of President Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

After the cleric's death was announced, state television replaced its programming with chants of verses from the Koran.

The head of the main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, said its member groups "categorically condemn the assassination".

"This is a crime by any measure that is completely rejected," he told the AFP news agency from Cairo.

The attack came hours after the UN said it would investigate allegations that chemical weapons had been used in Syria earlier this week.

Image caption The cleric had been a vocal critic of the uprising against the Syrian government

The Syrian government and opposition forces have both blamed each other for an attack in the Khan al-Assal area of Aleppo province. They both called for an inquiry.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday that he was working to establish the investigation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which oversees the chemical weapons convention, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

"My announcement should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity," said Mr Ban.

"The international community needs full assurance that chemical weapons stockpiles are verifiably safeguarded."

US President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line".