At least 14 people have been killed and more than 40 wounded in a suicide bomb attack inside a mosque in Damascus that also killed a top Sunni Muslim preacher and long-time supporter of President Bashar Assad.
The death of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support of the Alawite leader among the minority sect that has risen up against him.
The explosion occurred at a time the Eman Mosque in central Damascus would have been packed with worshippers for evening prayers.
TV footage showed wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor of the mosque.
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 programme.
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.