BEIRUT - A prominent Druze cleric known for criticising Syria's regime and Islamists was assassinated in a car bomb attack that killed 25 others and sparked riots outside the city of Sweida on Friday, a monitor said.
"Sheikh Wahid al-Balous was killed in a car bomb attack as he was driving on the outskirts of Sweida city," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Abdel Rahman said a second car bomb struck near the hospital in the Dahr al-Jabal neighbourhood where the wounded were being taken. He told AFP the toll from the two attacks had risen from eight people to 26, and that 50 others were wounded.
Balous was a popular leader in the southwestern city of Sweida, the heartland of Syria's Druze minority which made up around three per cent of the country's pre-war population of 23 million.
His death sparked riots in Sweida city, where protesters smashed a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the deceased ruler of Syria and father of its current president, Bashar al-Assad, the Observatory said.
"Dozens of protesters have gathered at government institutions... they burned some cars and gunshots were heard in the city," the Observatory said.
"It's an uprising by Balous's supporters, because they believe the regime killed him," Abdel Rahman added, describing the late-night instability as "major" for a city that has largely been spared the violence of Syria's ongoing war.
A resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said he heard crashing sounds and saw protesters throw rocks at a municipal building.
According to Malek Abu Kheir, a journalist from Sweida who knew Balous, the sheikh often spoke out against both jihadist groups and the Assad regime.
"Balous was the leader of the Sheikhs of Dignity group, which aimed to protect the Druze areas in Syria," said Abu Kheir.
'Pay the price with blood'
The Sheikhs of Dignity is the most powerful militia in the area and had fought fierce battles against the Islamic State jihadist group and Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.
Balous also opposed army conscripts from Sweida being sent outside the province, Abu Kheir told AFP.
Days before Balous's murder, Sweida residents had gathered in the city to demand more regular government services, including electricity and water - a protest that he had supported, activists said.
The head of Lebanon's Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, in a condolence statement he posted on Twitter, accused the Assad government of killing Balous.
"My condolences to Sheikh Wahid al-Balous and his companions, who were assassinated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad," he said.
But the chief of Syria's Druze, Sheikh Youssef Jarboua, accused "the enemies of the nation and humanitarian state".
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zohbi said the "terrorism that struck Sweida wants to send a message to its people, that because they stood by their nation, they will pay the price of this stance with blood".
According to SANA, parliament condemned "the two terrorist explosions in Sweida".
"These cowardly terrorist acts will not discourage the Syrian people from continuing their fight against terrorism, but will instead strengthen their perseverance," the parliament statement said.
Neither Zohbi nor the parliamentary statement mentioned Balous.
The Druze, who follow a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam, have been divided during Syria's civil war, with some members fighting on the government side and others expressing sympathy for the opposition.
Thousands of Druze men have evaded military service in the army's dwindling ranks and have mostly taken up arms only in defence of their own areas.
In Sweida, Druze have formed a local militia to protect themselves from the rebels, residents say.