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Syrian president vows to eradicate Syria rebels

President Bashar al-Assad vowed March 22 to purge Syria of “extremist forces” he accused of assassinating a leading Sunni Muslim cleric who backed his two-year battle against rebels and protesters. Al-Assad made the pledge in a message of condolence over the death of Mohammed al-Buti, who was killed along with dozens of worshippers by an explosion in a Damascus mosque on March 21. State media put the death toll from the blast at 42, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors violence across the country said 52 people died and the final figure was likely to be more than 60. Authorities announced a day of mourning on March 23, when a funeral is expected to be held for Buti, who often delivered his sermons in the historic Umayyad Mosque.

“Your blood ... and that of all Syrian martyrs will not be shed in vain,” al-Assad said. “We will adhere to your thinking to eliminate their darkness and extremism until we purge our country of them.”

The mosque bombing took place in the same Mazraa district of central Damascus where a car bomb killed more than 60 people one month ago, another sign that Syria’s civil war had penetrated to the heart of al-Assad’s capital.

Assad’s artillery positions on the northern edge of Damascus pounded the rebel-held southwestern towns of Derayya and Moadamiya on March 22 and a Damascus resident said the smell of gunpowder hung over the centre of the city.

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