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Top Sunni cleric who supported Assad killed in blast at Damascus mosque

Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric known to all Syrians as a religious scholar, was killed in a suicide bombing in the Eman Mosque, in Damascus, on March 21, 2013, according to Syrian state TV. (SANA/AP)

A senior Sunni cleric was killed in a bombing at a mosque in Damascus on Thursday, according to official Syrian media and opposition groups.

At least 41 worshipers were also killed and 84 others wounded in the blast at the Iman mosque in the capital’s Mazraa district, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. State media outlets described the explosion as a suicide bomb attack, but some opposition groups said it was a car bombing.

Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti was the imam of the Ummayad mosque, the largest and most important Sunni mosque in Syria, and was known for his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a controversial stance given that many Sunnis support the opposition.

Bouti, 84, was teaching a religious class at the Iman mosque the time of the explosion. In a sermon last month, the cleric called on devout Muslims to wage jihad in support of Assad.

Official media blamed the attack on “terrorists,” while some opposition groups pointed a finger at the Syrian government.

Interactive Grid: Keeping track of the conflict in Syria through videos, images and tweets.

“We all know how the regime eliminates those it wants at the time it wants,” a Damascus-based activist who uses the alias Leena al-Shami said in a statement. “Now, causing a blast in a mosque is not a thing that revolutionaries do or even think lightly of; however, the regime is known for not respecting any religious place or status.”

Although no group claimed immediate responsibility for the attack, the Syrian opposition has targeted pro-government Sunni clerics in the past.

The attack also appeared similar to a bomb attack in Damascus last July that killed several top security officials, including Assef Shawkat, deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military and Assad’s brother-in-law.

An eyewitness at the Iman mosque who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that the blast took place between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and left Bouti completely dismembered.

Still photos aired by the official Ikhbariya TV station showed the bloody bodies of men sprawled across the carpeted floor of the mosque after the attack.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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