DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Supporters of President Bashar Assad gathered in downtown Damascus amid tight security on Saturday for the funeral of one of Syria's best-known clerics who was assassinated in a brazen mosque bombing earlier this week.
Security forces sealed off all roads leading to the eighth century Omayyad Mosque where the funeral for Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, an 84-year-old pro-government cleric, was held.
Al-Buti, his grandson and 48 others were killed Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque where al-Buti was giving a religious lesson.
His assassination was a blow to Assad, who vowed Friday to avenge his death, saying he would "purge" the country of the militants behind the attack in the heart of the capital.
Both Assad and the rebels seeking to topple him have blamed each other for the bombing at the mosque.
Al-Buti, the most prominent religious figure killed so far in the 2-year-old 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 — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Mourners carried al-Buti and his grandson's coffins, draped in white cloth, on their shoulders amid shouts of "God is Great."
Al-Buti was imam of the Omayyad Mosque, a landmark in Damascus. Church bells tolls and mosque minarets in the ancient city blared "God is Great" during the funeral procession.
Syrian state TV said Assad was being represented at the funeral by one of his cabinet ministers.
Al-Buti was being buried in a courtyard at the rear of the mosque near the tomb of Saladin, a medieval Muslim ruler.
In a show of support, a delegation from the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, a staunch ally of Assad, drove to Damascus for the funeral. A delegation from Iran was also present.
"We will continue on the same path," said Sheik Mohammed Yazbeck, a member Hezbollah's highest decision-making body, the Shura Council. "We will return the blow to the enemies of Syria and the enemies of the nation," he added.