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Prominent anti-Assad cleric killed in bombing in southern Syria that also leaves 7 others dead

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Two rare explosions went off Friday near a hospital in a province in southern Syria, killing a prominent anti-government cleric and at least seven others, pro-government media and activists said.

Sheikh Wahid Balous was one of the strongest opponents of President Bashar Assad among the Druze minority sect that he belonged to. He died in the explosions that went off near the National Hospital in the predominantly Druze stronghold of Sweida.

State-run news agency SANA did not mention Balous. It said eight people were killed and 22 others were wounded in the blasts. However, the pro-government Sham FM Radio said two Druse clergymen were among the dead.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said Balous died in the blasts. He was known for his opposition to both Assad and the Islamic State extremists who have taken over a third of the country but was a strong supporter of the rebels trying to topple Assad.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombings.

A 10th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze made up about 5 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million people, and they have largely stayed out of the conflict in Syria. The killing threatened to inflame tensions in the province.

SANA also said three people were killed and 13 wounded Friday by six mortar shells that struck Jaramana in the countryside of Damascus.

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