BEIRUT - A suicide bomber blew himself up during evening prayers inside a mosque in Damascus Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad and least 13 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.
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 worshippers for Friday 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.
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 program.
Syrian TV began its evening newscast with a call-in from the religious endowments minister, Mohammad Abdelsattar al-Sayyed, who announced al-Buti's "martyrdom" as his voice choked up.