DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A militant suspected of masterminding car bombings in a southern Syrian province that killed a prominent cleric and at least 25 others was arrested Sunday after the slayings sparked anti-government protests, pro-government media reported.
Syrian state television said the militant, known as Wafi Abu Trabi, confessed to elders in Sweida province of plotting the bombings and subsequent violence against security forces there. The state news agency SANA identified him as a member of the Nusra Front, Syria's al-Qaida affiliate.
Late Sunday, the state television aired confessions by Abu Trabi, in which he said he was recruited by a Syrian rebel to kill the cleric.
Sweida is a predominantly Druze region that largely has stayed out of the civil war raging in Syria since 2011. But the two car bombs bombing there Friday killed anti-government Sheikh Wahid Balous, stirring angry protests by the cleric's supporters who accused the government of killing him.
Balous was a vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Soon after the bombings, clashes erupted outside police stations and security offices that killed some security agents, local resident and activist Tarek Abdul-Hai said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said six security personnel were killed.
Abdul-Hai, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from Sweida, said that calm has returned to the city as armed militias took charge of patrolling the area. Abdul-Hai said police and security agents have withdrawn from public view to ease the tension. Other civil security agencies returned to their posts, he said.
Abdul-Hai rejected the government claim that Abu Trabi was responsible for the attack as the man, who is a Druze, would never be accepted as a member of an Sunni al-Qaida affiliate.
A 10th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze made up about 5 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million people. The Druze are split between supporters and opponents of Assad. Al-Qaida considers the Shiite and any offshoot as heretics.
Abdul-Hai said Abu Trabi was a former member of the local Sweida city council until the first year of the Syrian uprising. He later turned against the government and joined armed rebels under the Free Syrian Army, fighting in neighboring Daraa province, before his unit was disbanded, Abdul-Hai said.
In the televised confessions, Abu Trabi didn't mention the al-Qaida affiliate. He said a Syrian army general who had joined the rebels recruited him to kill the cleric, because he was described as being "no longer useful." Abu Trabi spoke to an interviewer who didn't appear on camera.
Abdul-Hai said although calm was restored to Sweida, there is still tension ahead of a yet-unscheduled funeral for Balous and his aides.
Abdul-Hai said those in Sweida still can't access the Internet, four days after it first was cut amid wide ranging anti-government protests.
El Deeb reported from Beirut