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Syria

Suicide bomb kills top cleric in Damascus

A blast has left a group of congregants in central Damascus dead, among them one of Syria's top clerics and al-Assad regime supporters. Meanwhile, the UN has launched a probe into an alleged chemical weapon attack.

The blast occurred during a sermon at the Eman mosque in the capital city on Thursday evening. Syria's state television said the attack killed 42 people, and injured 84. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the attack via email to reporters.

Television footage depicted a gory scene. Dozens of ambulances rushed to the site, where body bags were already lining an area doused in blood and strewn with limbs.

One of Syria's most recognized clerics, Sheikh Mohamed Saeed al-Bouti, was killed in the blast. He was addressing the congregation when the explosion occurred.

Recently, state television had often broadcast al-Bouti's sermons live. A well-known theology scholar, al-Bouti, 84, was a Sunni Muslim who had publicly supported President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has been waging a war against opposition fighters for nearly two years. Sunnis comprise the majority of opposition forces seeking to oust the minority Alawite president.

State TV called al-Bouti a "martyr" on Thursday evening when it reported the bombing.

Over 70,000 people have died in the civil war since fighting broke out in early 2011, according to UN estimates. Within the country, at least 2 million have been displaced and at least 1 million more have sought refugee in neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Last month, the EU and the US pledged non-lethal support to help rebels bring the war to an end. President al-Assad has thus far rejected all calls from the international community to resign.

UN launches chemical weapons probe

Following allegations of a chemical weapons attacks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that the United Nations would investigate the incidents "as soon as practically possible."

Both sides in the Syrian war have accused the other of using chemical weapons. The alleged incident occurred on Tuesday near Syria's second city, Aleppo, prompting France and Britain to call on the UN to act.

"My announcement should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity," Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Thursday.

"The international community needs full assurance that chemical weapons stockpiles are verifiably safeguarded," adding that he hoped President al-Assad would cooperate.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said the US supported the move. President Barack Obama had also announced on Wednesday that the US would conduct intelligence gathering to the best of its ability in the warzone.

The UN is to conduct the investigation in coordination with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization.

kms,jr/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)