BEIRUT — A suicide bombing tore through a mosque in the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad along with at least 13 other people.
The assassination of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Alawite leader among the majority sect that has risen up against him.
The powerful explosion struck as al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric and religious scholar who appeared often on TV, was giving a religious lesson in the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus, according to state TV.
Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria's 2-year-old civil war. But Thursday's explosion marked the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
Syrian TV footage showed wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor and later, bodies covered in white body bags lined up in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.
Al-Buti's death was 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 Assad's father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
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 phone announcement from the religious endowments minister, Mohammad Abdelsattar al-Sayyed, declaring al-Buti's "martyrdom" as his voice choked up. It then showed parts of his sermon last Friday in which he praised the military for battling the "mercenaries" and said Syria was being subjected to a "universal conspiracy."
Assad's regime refers to the rebels fighting against it as "terrorists" and "mercenaries" who are backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the country. The war, which the U.N. says has killed more than 70,000 people, has become increasingly chaotic as rebels press closer to Assad's seat of power in Damascus after seizing large swaths of territory in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
The rebels also captured a village and other territory on the edge of the Golan Heights Thursday as fighting closed in on the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, activists and officials said.
The battles near the town of Quneitra in southwest Syria sent many residents fleeing, including dozens who crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The fighting in the sensitive area began Wednesday near the cease-fire line between Syrian and Israeli troops.
One of the worst-case scenarios for Syria's civil war is that it could draw in neighboring countries such as Israel or Lebanon.
There have already been clashes with Turkey, Syria's neighbor to the north. And Israel recently bombed targets inside Syria said to include a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a key ally of the regime in Damascus and an arch foe of the Jewish state.
If the rebels take over the Quneitra region, it will bring radical Islamic militants to a front-line with Israeli troops. Syrian rebels are made of dozens of groups including the powerful, al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration labels a terrorist organization.
Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but it has retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled over into Israeli communities on the Golan Heights.
The Golan front has been mostly quiet since 1974, a year after Syria and Israel fought a war.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels seized control of parts of villages a few kilometers (miles) from the cease-fire line with Israel after fierce fighting with regime forces.
The Local Coordination Committees, another anti-regime activist group, reported heavy fighting in the nearby village of Sahm al-Golan and said rebels are attacking an army post.
The Observatory said seven people, including three children, were killed Wednesday by government shelling of villages in the area.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the fighting around the town of Arnabeh intensified Thursday, a day after rebels captured it. He added that the rebels captured two nearby army posts.
In Lebanon, security officials said 150 people, mostly women and children, walked for six hours in rugged mountains covered with snow to reach safety in the Lebanese border town of Chebaa.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the Syrians fled from the town of Beit Jan, near the Golan Heights.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a rebel group active in southern Syria, said in a statement on its Facebook page that its fighters stormed an army post between the villages of Sahm al-Golan and Shajara.
Activists on Facebook pages affiliated with rebels in Quneitra announced the start of the operation to "break the siege on Quneitra and Damascus' western suburbs."
The fighting moved closer to Israel as President Barack Obama was visiting the country for the first time since taking office more than four years ago.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.