SANA via AP
The Iman Mosque in central Damascus after an explosion that reportedly killed 42 people, including a well-known pro-government cleric on Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013, in an image provided by the Syrian government. State TV said a suicide bomber blew himself up during evening prayers.
BEIRUT — An explosion at a mosque in the Syrian capital on Thursday killed at least 42 people, including a senior pro-government Muslim cleric, and wounded 84, the Syrian health ministry said.
State television and anti-government activists had earlier reported 15 dead. The television said a "terrorist suicide blast" hit the Iman Mosque in central Damascus, and Mohammed al-Buti, imam of the ancient Ummayyad Mosque, was among the dead.
Buti, a government-appointed cleric reviled by the Syrian opposition movement, delivered the official weekly Friday mosque sermons on state television.
In one of his televised speeches, Buti described those fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad as 'scum'. He also used his position to call on Syrians to join the armed forces and help Assad defeat his rivals in the country's two-year-long rebellion.
Syria TV said the explosion was a "terrorist suicide blast."
Rebel spokesman Loay Maqdad said units associated with the opposition's Free Syrian Army were not behind the attack.
"We in the Free Syrian Army do not take any responsibility for this operation. We do not do these types of suicide bombings and we do not target mosques,'' he told Al Arabiya television.
Youssef Badawi / EPA
Mohammed al-Buti, Syria's main Islamic scholar, who reportedly was killed in a blast at the Iman Mosque in Damascus on Thursday.
Al-Bouti was killed while delivering a sermon media reports said.
Video released by Syria's al-Ikhbariya channel showed dozens of limp bodies lying on the bloodied carpet of the mosque, as emergency workers rushed in to give survivors first aid. Mangled limbs lay among the wreckage.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, earlier reported that 15 had died in the blast. The group said it was unclear if the explosion was caused by a car bomb or a mortar shell.
The Iman mosque is also next to the offices of Assad's ruling Baath party as well as other government compounds.
Locals were panicked after the blast late on Thursday and described seeing ambulances rushing to the area while traffic came to a standstill. Residents near the mosque said the strong, acrid smell of gun powder still hung in the air.
Buti, 84, led the funeral prayers for Bashar al-Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.
The imam's critics saw him as a religious mouthpiece in support of Assad. When the revolt started in March 2011, he quickly threw his support behind the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
Buti was a Sunni Muslim, the sect which makes up the majority of Syria's population.
Sunnis have led the revolt against Assad, a movement that began as peaceful protests but devolved into bloody civil war that has sparked sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Assad's minority Alawite population.
It was unclear who was behind the Damascus blast, although Syria TV immediately accused "terrorists," a term frequently used to described rebels. If opposition fighters were responsible, it would signal the ease with which they are able to strike in the heart of the capital compared to a year ago.