BEIRUT (Reuters) - Druze gunmen killed six Syrian government security personnel during unrest sparked by two deadly car bomb blasts in southern Syria, one of which killed a local Druze leader, a monitor said on Saturday.
The violence, which the monitor said killed a total of 37 people, came after days of anti-government protests in the area over lack of fuel supplies and public services, according to activists.
The two blasts took place in and around Sweida city, a stronghold of the Druze minority which traditionally has been loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The wider region borders the Damascus countryside and Deraa, strategically important areas to Assad.
Fighters from Islamic State and other insurgent groups, including Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and more moderate rebels, have separately attacked government forces in Sweida province - IS in the east and other groups in the west - in attempts to advance into the area.
The first car bomb, which detonated in Sweida’s outskirts late on Friday, killed Druze leader Sheikh Wahid al-Balous and several others, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The second exploded inside the city shortly afterwards.
After the attacks, dozens of people protested outside government buildings in the Sweida area, setting cars alight and destroying a statue of former president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, the Observatory said.
During protests, Druze gunmen killed six government security personnel, the Observatory said.
They were among a total death toll of at least 37, it said.
Syrian state media confirmed the blasts and said dozens had been killed, but did not mention Druze leader Balous.
Balous had opposed both the Syrian government and Islamist insurgents fighting against it, the Observatory said.
There was no claim of responsibility for the bomb attacks.
Pro-government television broadcast footage of the aftermath of one blast, showing a car whose front bumper had been blown off and blood-stained tarmac.
Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese Druze leader who backs the uprising against Assad, on Twitter blamed the Syrian government for what he called the “assassination” of Balous.
On Saturday, the SMO website, which is affiliated to the Southern Front, an alliance of more moderate rebel groups, published a statement from one faction in Deraa pledging armed support for anti-government protesters.
It said it was ready to “secure all supply routes” leading to Sweida and to enter the town to fight alongside them.
Local activists had posted videos in the last few days of popular protests in Sweida against the government, prompted by anger over lack of fuel, electricity and public services.
Earlier in the summer, the Syrian army and allied fighters drove insurgents from parts of an air base they had seized in Sweida province.
The Druze faith, related to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, is practiced by around 1.5 million people, mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. It is viewed as heretical by the puritanical school of Sunni Islam espoused by al Qaeda and by Islamic State.
While the Druze are traditionally loyal to Assad, there are pockets of opposition. Balous had opposed the drafting of Druze into the Syrian army.
Reporting by John Davison and Naline Malla; editing by Ros Russell