BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria vowed Friday to avenge the death of a senior pro-government cleric who was killed along with dozens of other people in a suicide bombing at a Damascus mosque, saying he would “purge our country” of the militants behind the attack in the heart of the capital.
Both Assad and the rebels seeking to topple him blamed each other for Thursday’s bombing at the mosque. At least 49 people were killed, including the 84-year-old preacher and his grandson, the government said, in one of the most brazen assassinations of the Syrian civil war.
Although the cleric was despised by the rebels for his unwavering support of the regime, opposition leaders condemned his killing.
In a rare statement on Syrian state media, Assad framed the attack as part of a terrorist conspiracy against his government and praised the slain preacher, Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti.
“Your works full of truthfulness and belief were the best expression of the essence and light of Islam in confronting the powers of darkness and extremist thought that considers others infidels,” Assad was quoted as saying.
He blamed “terrorists” — his standard jargon for the opposition — and vowed to “purge our country of them.”
“And this is a promise from the Syrian people, and I am one of them, that your blood, that of your grandson and the blood of all today’s martyrs and all martyrs of the homeland will not go in vain,”Assad said.
Buti, Syria’s best-known cleric and the most prominent religious figure killed in the conflict, had supported the regime since the early days of Assad’s father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, providing legitimacy to their rule. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect.
The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right put the death toll in the bombing at 52. No group claimed responsibility.
The exile opposition Syrian National Coalition blamed Assad’s government, arguing that the bomber could have reached the heavily guarded mosque only with regime support.
“He who does not hesitate to bomb mosques, universities, and bakeries and target residential areas with Scud missiles cannot be expected to refrain from carrying out terrorist explosions that kill innocent Syrian civilians,” it said.
Coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib, who rose to prominence preaching in the same mosque as Buti, acknowledged their political differences.
“We almost never agreed with his political opinions and we see his position toward rulers as not theologically sound, but we view his killing as a crime that opens the doors of evil that only God knows,” Khatib said on Facebook.
He suggested the regime had a hand in the bombing, saying Buti was changing his views on the civil war.
“We think the regime liquidated him, fearing that a courageous position from him would flip the entire balance,” he said.
Buti’s killing came near the start of the third year of the Syrian crisis, with an estimated 70,000 people dead.