Protesters in southern Syria smash statue as they mark 2015 assassination of anti-government leader

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of angry protesters in southern Syria smashed the statue of Syria’s late president on Monday as they they marked the 2015 assassination of a prominent anti-government Druze leader.

The protests in the province of Sweida, where the Druze community represents the majority of the population, have entered their third week. The demonstrations were initially driven by surging inflation and the war-torn country’s spiraling economy but quickly shifted focus, with marchers calling for the fall of President Bashar Assad's government.

Monday's protest took place in the provincial capital, also called Sweida, where angry men and woman called for the downfall of Assad’s government. Some smashed the statue of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

Several demonstrators marched up to the building of the local branch of the social security and tore down a giant poster of Bashar Assad, according to videos circulated on social media and opposition activists.

Monday marked the eighth anniversary of the assassination of cleric Sheik Wahid Balous, a prominent critic of Assad. He had called on the youth in Sweida to refuse to serve in the military.

Balous, a strong supporter of rebels trying to topple Assad, died in one of two bomb explosions on Sept. 4, 2015, that also also killed 25 others. Some have blamed the government for the killing.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the protesters initially went into the Swedia municipality building and removed Hafez Assad’s statue from the yard, carried it to a nearby street and smashed it there.

Some demonstrators angrily kicked chunks of the statue as it lay on the ground.

Sweida province has largely stayed out of the fighting in Syria’s 12-year civil war that has killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and left parts of the country destroyed. The conflict has displaced half the country’s prewar population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside the country.

A 10th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze make up about 5% of Syria’s prewar population, and are split between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.

In late August, angry protesters raided the local offices of the ruling Baath party in Sweida while others blocked a highway that links the province with the capital of Damascus.