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 and at least 41 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 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.
Meanwhile, the United Nations will investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, which would amount to a crime against humanity, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday.
The investigation could be broader than the Syrian government’s request for an independent inquiry of a purported chemical weapons attack on Tuesday. Ban said he was aware of allegations of other, similar attacks and hoped the investigation would ultimately help secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
The secretary general said investigators would look into Syria’s allegation that rebels carried out a chemical weapons attack on Khan al-Assal village in northern Aleppo Province. The rebels blamed regime forces for the attack.
A senior US official said Thursday that the United States now has strong indications that no chemical weapons were used in the attack. Officials will not entirely rule out the possibility, but this official said additional intelligence has led many to believe it was not a weaponized chemical attack. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. But Thursday’s explosion marked the first time a bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
Syrian TV said 84 people were wounded in the explosion and showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor and later, bodies covered in white body bags lined in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene.
Buti’s death was a big blow to Syria’s embattled leader, who is fighting mainly Sunni rebels. 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 Shi’ite Islam.
Buti 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 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 United Nations 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 Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, activists and officials said.
The battles near Quneitra in southwest Syria sent many residents fleeing, including dozens who crossed into 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 Damascus regime and an arch foe of the Jewish state.
If the rebels take over the Quneitra region, it would bring radical Islamic militants to a front-line with Israeli troops. Syrian rebels are made of dozens of groups including the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration labels a terrorist organization and links to Al Qaeda.
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.