Anti-government violence has continued following the killing of a prominent Druze leader in a car bomb attack in a southern Syrian province that had largely stayed on the sidelines of the country’s civil war.
The death toll from the car bomb and subsequent violence in Suweida province over the past two days has risen to 46 people, including a child, sources told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
On Friday, Sheikh Wahid Balous, a prominent critic of President Bashar al-Assad, died in one of two consecutive car bomb explosions, including one near the National Hospital in Suweida city. Dozens of people were killed in the attacks and many more were injured.
Balous had called on youth in the province, a stronghold of the Druze minority sect, to refuse to serve in the military. He was also a strong supporter of rebels trying to topple Assad.
Following the blasts, residents, including members of the victims’ families, clashed with security forces at the city’s security offices, holding the government responsible for the Druze leader’s death, Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Nour said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said armed residents on Saturday killed six security forces and rioters also destroyed the statue of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the city.
The city had witnessed large rallies in the days before Friday’s explosions, with demonstrators protesting against what they called the failure of the government to provide basic services. Activists reported that there was no internet service for the past few days.
The Syrian government called the blasts “cowardly terrorist acts”.
A police commander in the city, Mohammed Samra, said Suweida was “calm and stable” and denied any unrest, accusing such reports of aiming to undermine security in the area.
Some of Balous’ supporters said in a statement they will expel security forces from Suweida province, which until now has largely stayed out of the fighting in Syria’s civil war.
City elders appealed for calm, warning against attempts to drag the province towards violence. Another statement from the city’s Druze leaders urged supporters to be patient as the Druze leader’s brother, who was seriously wounded in the attack, recovers.
A 10th century offshoot of Shia Islam, the Druze made up about five percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people, and is split between supporters and opponents of Assad.
The National Syrian Coalition, the main opposition group in exile, also blamed the Syrian government for the killing of the Druze leader, known as “the Dignity Sheikh”, saying it was part of an attempt to stop the anti-government protests in recent days.
In a statement, coalition member Suheir Atassi said killing Balous only “increased the popular anger in the province”.
The conflict in Syria, which began as peaceful protests against the regime of Assad and escalated into a civil war, has killed more than 240,000 people.