BEIRUT – A suicide bomb ripped through a mosque in the heart of the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and outspoken supporter of President Bashar Assad in one of the most stunning assassinations of Syria's 2-year-old civil war. At least 41 others were killed and more than 84 wounded.
The slaying of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support for Assad among the majority Sunni sect that has risen up against him.
It also marks a new low in the Syrian civil war: While suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common, Thursday's attack was the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
A prolific writer whose sermons were regularly broadcast on TV, the 84-year-old al-Buti was killed while giving a religious lesson to students at the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus.
The most senior religious figure to be killed in Syria's civil war, his assassination was a major blow to Syria's embattled leader, who is fighting mainly Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of the regime since the early days of Assad's father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, providing Sunni cover and legitimacy to their rule. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
"The blood of Sheik al-Buti will be a fire that ignites all the world," said Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country's top state-appointed Sunni Muslim cleric and an Assad loyalist.
Syrian TV showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the mosque's blood-stained floor, and later, corpses 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.
Among those killed was al-Buti's grandson, the TV said.
The bombing was among the most serious security breaches in the capital. An attack in July that targeted a high-level government crisis meeting killed four top regime officials, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense minister.
Last month, a car bomb that struck in the same area, which houses the headquarters of Syria's ruling Baath party, killed at least 53 people and wounded more than 200 others in one of the deadliest Damascus bombings of the civil war.
A small, frail man, al-Buti was well known in the Arab world as a religious scholar and longtime imam at the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque, a Damascus landmark. State TV said he has written 60 books and religious publications.
In recent months, Syrian TV has carried al-Buti's sermons from mosques in Damascus live every week. He also has a regular religious TV program.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday's attack.
Among the opposition, there was a mixture of suspicion and shock that an elderly religious figure such as al-Bouti would be targeted by a suicide bomber inside a mosque.
"I don't know of a single opposition group that could do something like this," said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition opposition group, speaking on Al-Arabiya TV.
Syrian TV began its evening newscast with an 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 al-Buti's sermon from last Friday, in which he praised the military for battling the "mercenaries sent by America and the West" 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.
On Thursday, rebels captured a village and other territory on the edge of the Golan Heights 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 Damascus regime 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. The rebels are composed 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 miles (kilometers) 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 were 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. They said eight wounded Syrians were brought on mules from Beit Jan and taken in ambulances to hospitals in 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 Jewish state for the first time since taking office more than four years ago.
DENVER – Civil unions for gay couples were signed into law in Colorado, ending a dramatic turnaround in a state where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006.
Colorado will join eight U.S. states that have civil unions or similar laws. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. The law takes effect May 1.
Hundreds looked on as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, with many chanting "Equal! Equal!"
"There is no excuse that people shouldn't have all the same rights," Hickenlooper told the crowd.
Views on gay rights have been rapidly shifting in the United States. A Pew Research Center survey found that 49 percent of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 44 percent are opposed. A decade ago, 58 percent opposed it and a third supported it.
Civil unions grant gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the ability to make medical decisions for their partners.
"It means I can change my name finally," said 21-year-old Amber Fuentes, who plans to have a civil union with Yolanda Martinez, 34.
"It's not marriage, but it still gives us a lot of the rights," Martinez said.
U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on California's gay marriage ban in the coming months, a decision that could affect the status of gay marriage other states.
"It's really meaningful. To have the recognition of your love and relationship just like any other relationship by the state is an important both legal and symbolic thing," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a sponsor of the bill and the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the title of speaker in Colorado.
Most Republicans opposed the bill, saying they would've liked to see religious exemptions to provide legal protections for those opposed to civil unions. Churches are shielded under the new law, but Democrats rejected protections for businesses and adoption agencies, arguing the Republican suggestions were too broad and could provide legal cover to discriminate.
DECATUR, Texas – A man who may be linked to the slaying of Colorado's state prison chief led authorities in Texas on a harrowing, 100 mph car chase Thursday that ended after he crashed into a semi and then opened fire before being shot down by his pursuers, authorities said.
The man is still unidentified and is "basically legally deceased" while still hooked up to equipment for organ harvesting at a Fort Worth hospital, Wise County Sheriff David Walker said at an afternoon news conference in Decatur.
The possible link to the Tuesday night slaying of Colorado prison director Tom Clements is tentative but intriguing enough to put Colorado investigators on a plane to Texas. The black Cadillac the man drove, with Colorado license plates, matches the description of a car spotted outside Clements' home just before the Department of Corrections chief was fatally shot while answering his front door.
"We don't know yet exactly whether this is the guy," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters Thursday afternoon. "There's some indication. I hope it is."
Also heading to Texas were detectives from Denver and Golden who are investigating whether the man is linked to the shooting death of a pizza delivery driver in Colorado on Sunday, Denver police spokeswoman Raquel Lopez said. She said the agencies were working with El Paso County, Colo., sheriff's officials, who are investigating Clements' death, and she couldn't comment on evidence from the car that crashed in Texas.
Montague County sheriff's deputy James Boyd tried to pull over the Cadillac at about 11 a.m. Thursday, though officials wouldn't elaborate on the reason.
The driver opened fire on Boyd, wounding him, Walker said. He then fled south before crashing into a semi as he tried to elude his pursuers.
Walker said Colorado investigators were heading to Texas to determine whether the man is connected to Clements' killing. Boyd was wearing a bulletproof vest and is at a Fort Worth hospital, authorities said. Officials had said he wasn't seriously injured but later said his condition was unknown.
Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins said the man appeared to be a white man in his 30s. The man shot at Hoskins four times as the chief tried to set up a road block to halt him. The man left his car after it crashed and opened fire on the authorities around him, Hoskins said.
"He wasn't planning on being taken alive," Hoskins said. In a brief interview, he added that the man had no identification on him.
El Paso County sheriff's investigators have been looking for a dark, late-model car, possibly a Lincoln or a Cadillac, that a neighbor spotted near Clements' home around the time of the shooting. Lt. Jeff Kramer refused to say what other clues may have been found after officers canvassed Clements' neighborhood.
Clements, 58, was killed as he answered the door to his home Tuesday night in Monument, a town of rolling hills and alpine trees north of Colorado Springs. His death stunned law enforcement colleagues in Colorado and Missouri, where he spent most of his career as a highly respected corrections official.
Police haven't said if they think his death was linked to his job.
Denver's KMGH-TV reported Thursday that Clements may have put a bicycle up for sale for $1,200 on Craigslist. Kramer told the station, "I can't speak to the efforts behind this tip, or the level we are giving it."
In recent weeks, Clements had requested chemicals to plan for the execution of a convict on Colorado's death row and denied a Saudi national's request to serve out the remainder of a sentence in his home country. Officials refused to say whether they were looking at those actions as possible motives.
Clements came to Colorado in 2011 after working three decades in the Missouri prison system. Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Mandi Steele said Thursday the department was ready to help in the probe if asked.
"Tom regularly commented that corrections is inherently a dangerous business, and that's all that I'll say," said Alison Morgan, a Colorado corrections spokeswoman who worked closely with Clements.
Officials in positions like Clements' get a deluge of threats, according to people who monitor their safety. But it can be hard sorting out which ones could lead to violence. A U.S. Department of Justice study found that federal prosecutors and judges received 5,250 threats between 2003 and 2008, but there were only three attacks during that time period.
The last public official killed in Colorado in the past 10 years was Sean May, a prosecutor in suburban Denver. An assailant killed May as he arrived home from work. Investigators examined May's court cases, but the case remains unsolved.
The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq says that the number of Christian houses of worship there has dwindled alarmingly in the decade since the U.S. invaded and ousted Saddam Hussein from power.
There are just 57 Christian churches in the entire country, down from more than 300 as recently as 2003, Patriarch Louis Sako told Egyptian-based news agency.
The churches that remain are frequent targets of Islamic extremists, who have driven nearly a million Christians out of the land, say human rights advocates.
The last 10 years have been the worst for Iraqi Christians because they bore witness to the biggest exodus and migration in the history of Iraq,” William Warda, the head of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization told the news agency.
Many Christians live in the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, and Kirkuk, and Dohuk and Erbil, which are both in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Warda said some 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to Hussein's ouster. Under the democratically-elected government that now oversees the war-torn, but oil-rich nation, Islamic extremists have been able to operate more freely.
“ More than two-thirds [of Christians] have emigrated,” Warda noted.
One byproduct of regime change in the Middle East, whether at the hand of the U.S. military and its allies or demonstrators in the streets, has been a decline in tolerance for other religions, say experts. Only one Catholic church remains in Afghanistan, and it must be heavily protected. In Egypt and Libya, where demonstrators overthrew dictators in recent years, Christians have come under heavy persecution, say concerned advocates.
“What is clear is that the mass exodus of Christians in the Middle East - including Iraq - has been caused by radical Islam - whether by Islamic governments, terrorist organizations, or extreme Islamists," said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director of the American Center for Law and Justice. "We examined the issue in Iraq in a 2011 report from our European affiliate. At that time, we determined that Al Qaeda had been strategically targeting Iraqi Christians - even issuing a warning to all Christians to leave the country.
One of the most dramatic cases of Christian persecution came in late October of 2010, when Al Qaeda members laid siege to Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, killing 58 and wounding 78 in a bloodbath Pope Benedict XVI denounced as “ferocious.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also condemned the attack, calling it an attempt to drive more Christians out of the country.
“This tragic event sent a powerful message to Christians in Iraq - they are in grave danger and should leave the country," Barrans said. “Iraq’s hostility toward Christianity is well documented. Tragically, Iraq is another example of a country where the government does not tolerate Christians or other religious minorities.”