Damascus (AFP) - Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt, who gained renown for his insistence on staying in Syria's besieged city of Homs, was shot dead there on Monday by a masked gunman.

His death was reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria's state news agency SANA, and was confirmed by the Dutch Jesuit Order.

The motive for his murder was unclear, although Syria's main opposition bloc accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of being behind it.

Van der Lugt, 75, had become a well-known figure in the Old City of Homs, respected by many for his solidarity with residents of the rebel-held area under a government siege for nearly two years.

He refused to leave despite constant shelling and dwindling supplies, insisting Syria was his home and he wanted to be with the country's citizens in their time of need.

"I can confirm that he's been killed," Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order, told AFP by phone.

"A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head. In the street in front of his house," he said, adding the priest would be buried in Syria "according to his wishes".

- 'Guard wounded' -

Residents and pro-goverment forces gather at the site …

Residents and pro-goverment forces gather at the site of a car bomb explosion on March 17, 2014 in t …

The opposition National Council said a "masked gunman" who also wounded Van der Lugt's guard from the rebel Free Syrian Army when he stormed the priest's Jesuit monastery and killed him.

Van der Lugt spent nearly five decades in Syria, and told AFP in February that he considered the country to be his home.

"The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties," he said.

He stayed on even as some 1,400 people were evacuated during a UN-supervised operation that began on February 7 and also saw limited supplies of food brought into the city.

Government forces have besieged Homs's Old City for nearly two years, creating increasing dire circumstances for those unable to leave.

"The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow. Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength," Van der Lugt said before the UN operation.

"What should we do, die of hunger?"

The siege and shelling whittled away the Old City's population, including a Christian community that shrunk from tens of thousands to just 66, according to the Dutch priest.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab …

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 13, 2014, shows w …

Father Frans arrived in Syria in 1966 after spending two years in Lebanon studying Arabic.

He lived in a Jesuit monastery, where he ministered remaining Christians and tried to help poor families -- Muslims and Christians alike.

"I don't see people as Muslims or Christian, I see a human being first and foremost," he told AFP in February.

- 'Man of peace' -

The Vatican praised Van der Lugt as a "man of peace," and expressed "great pain" over his death.

"This is the death of a man of peace, who showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation," spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

"In this moment of great pain, we also express our great pride and gratitude at having had a brother who was so close to the suffering."

Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans also mourned the priest on his Facebook page.

"The man that's brought nothing but good in Homs, who became a Syrian among Syrians and refused to leave his people in the lurch, even when things became life-threatening, has been murdered in a cowardly manner," he said.

"Father Frans deserves our thanks and our respect. He must be able to count on our contribution to help end this misery."

The office of Ahmad Jarba, the president of the opposition National Council, condemned the murder "in the strongest terms".

It said the Assad regime was "ultimately responsible for this crime, as the only beneficiary of Father Frans's death".

Assad himself was quoted as saying the "project of political Islam has failed" in Syria, where more than 150,000 people have been killed in a three-year conflict that has come to be dominated by Islamists, ranging from moderates to radicals.

(Source: http://news.yahoo.com/gunman-kills-well-known-dutch-priest-syrias-homs-102152008.html)