Six killed as tensions rise in Druze Syrian area after twin bombs


Beirut (dpa) – Six intelligence officers were killed after protestors attacked their posts overnight in Suweida, a largely Druze area in southern Syria that saw twin bomb attacks kill 28 people the previous day, activists told dpa on Saturday.

Three other people were killed overnight but they were not immediately identified, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The bombings on Friday killed Sheikh Waheed Baalous, a prominent anti-government religious leader, leading to tensions in Suweida. Streets were deserted following the overnight demonstrations by supporters of Baalous.

The Suweida area is generally seen as supportive of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Observatory said demonstrators burnt cars and destroyed a statue of the late president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar.

The Druze, a religious minority group who make up about 3 per cent of Syria’s population, have lent their support to al-Assad’s government, chiefly out of concern about the rise of hardline militant Islamic rebel groups who view them as heretics.

Meanwhile, in the northern Aleppo province battles between the Islamic State and hardline Islamic rebel groups have left at least 47 fighters dead over the past day, the Observatory said.

The Islamic State has been trying for a month to capture Marea, which would inch them closer to Aleppo city and a key border crossing point and supply route from Turkey.

Last week, Islamic State militants seized five villages from rebel forces around Marea, north of Aleppo city which itself is divided between areas under government control and sections held by the opposition.

Reports from the area suggested that the Islamic State group used a chemical agent, possibly mustard gas, in its attacks.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a report last week that it had treated four members of a Syrian family “who suffered from breathing difficulties and developed blisters” after a mortar shell hit their house in Marea.

The events in Suweida comes as the Syrian government has been on the back foot in several areas around the country in recent months.

According to activists, the first bomb targeted the convoy of Baalous, the cleric, while the second went off as ambulances were rushing the wounded to the hospital.

Baalous had formed a Druze militia called the Sheikhs of Dignity to defend the region from attacks by hardline Islamist rebels.

“The sheikh, who was the leader of the Sheikhs of Dignity group, was working on protecting the Druze areas from extremists; but he was against the regime’s policies in killing our Syrian brothers,” said Abu Alaa, a resident of Suweida.

The chief of Syria’s Druze, Sheikh Youssef Jarboua, who is a government supporter, has called for calm and accused what he described “the enemies of the nation and humanitarian state” of killing Baalous.

Syrian officials denounced the car bombs but did not mention the sheikh’s name.

Suweida has also seen tension this year as locals resist efforts to conscript them into the overstretched government army, which is taking heavy losses.

The pushback against conscription has been a growing problem for al-Assad.

More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict first began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests.