BEIRUT, Lebanon - A Dutch priest who had steadfastly refused to leave the besieged Syrian city of Homs was assassinated by a masked gunman Monday, a killing that robbed Syria of one of its most high-profile interfaith figures.
Father Frans van der Lugt, 75, a Jesuit who had lived in Syria for almost 50 years, was shot in the head in the garden of his monastery in a rebel-held area, according to colleagues and Syrian opposition fighters.
It was unclear who carried out the killing, as rebels and the government blamed each other. But residents said tensions have been high over a possible cease-fire agreement that would evacuate more civilians from rebel-held areas of the city, similar to agreements brokered in the Damascus suburbs in recent months. Extremist rebel groups had objected to further evacuations, said Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
The priest was "a Syrian among Syrians" who refused to abandon his adopted people even when it meant risking his own life, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said. In a statement, the Vatican called van der Lugt a "man of peace" who wanted to remain faithful to the people to whom he had dedicated his spiritual service.
Van der Lugt had repeatedly called for a solution to end the suffering of residents in besieged areas of Homs, which has been cut off from food supplies by a government siege and is regularly bombarded.
Humanitarian workers said he worked tirelessly to negotiate humanitarian access to the area ahead of the evacuation of 1,400 people by the United Nations in February, when Western-backed peace talks in Geneva turned the global spotlight onto Homs.