A car bomb blast has killed a Druze leader among others and injured dozens more in southwestern Syria, according to a monitoring group.
Friday's explosion on the outskirts of Suweida killed Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, who opposed both the Syrian government and armed groups fighting against it, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A separate blast that occurred around the same time in Suweida killed and wounded dozens of people, the Syrian Observatory said.
"Sheikh Wahid al-Balous was killed in a car-bomb attack as he was driving on the outskirts of Suweida city," Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory, said.
He said a second car bomb struck near the hospital in the Dahr al-Jabal neighbourhood where the wounded were being taken.
He told AFP new agency the toll from the two attacks had risen from eight people to 26, and that 50 others were wounded. Syrian state media confirmed the two blasts and also said 26 people had been killed, blaming the explosions on anti-government groups.
No responsibility claim
State media did not mention Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, who was a popular leader in Suweida, the heartland of Syria's Druze minority which made up around three percent of the country's pre-war population of 23 million.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts and Al Jazeera could not independently verify the reports of the sheikh's death.
After the attack, dozens of people protested outside government buildings in the Suweida area, setting cars alight and destroying a statue in the town of former president Hafez al-Assad, father of President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Observatory said.
According to Malek Abu Kheir, a journalist from Suweida, the sheikh often spoke out against both armed groups and the Assad government.
"Balous was the leader of the Sheikhs of Dignity group, which aimed to protect the Druze areas in Syria," said Abu Kheir.
The Sheikhs of Dignity is the most powerful militia in the area and had fought fierce battles against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.
Balous also opposed army conscripts from Suweida being sent outside the province, Abu Kheir told AFP.
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".
For his part, Omran Zohbi, Syria's information minister, said the "terrorism that struck Suweida 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 Suweida".
|Nearly 12,000 children are among the almost a quarter of a million people killed in Syria's conflict since it broke out in March 2011 [AP]
"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 Shia Islam, have been divided during Syria's civil war, with some members fighting on the government side and others expressing sympathy for the opposition.
Almost a quarter of a million people, including nearly 12,000 children, have been killed in Syria's conflict since it broke out in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory.
At least 88,616 Assad loyalists have been killed - or one-third of all deaths documented by the monitor - including 50,570 government soldiers, with the rest made up by allied fighters.