A Swedish artist who drew a sketch of Muhammad with a dog's body — then had a bounty placed on his head by al Qaeda and lived for years under police protection — was killed in a car crash Sunday, the Associated Press reported.
Lars Vilks, 75, and two police bodyguards died in a head-on collision with a truck, the AP added.
Lars Vilks: Swede who lived under police protection after drawing Prophet Muhammad dies in crashyoutu.be
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Carina Persson, police chief for southern Sweden, said all three died on the spot and that the 45-year-old truck driver was flown to a hospital with serious injuries, the outlet said.
Persson said one of the bodyguards was driving the police car that had left Stockholm and then veered into the path of the truck, the AP said, adding that both vehicles burst into flames.
The site of the crash was near Markaryd, the outlet said. It's about five hours southwest of Stockholm.
"There is nothing else for now that indicates that it was something else but a traffic accident," Persson said at a news conference, the outlet reported.
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Sweden's top police chief, Anders Thornberg, said an investigation would take place, but was expected "to take a relatively long time."
Sweden's Culture Minister Amanda Lind called it "an extremely tragic traffic accident."
Vilks was largely unknown outside Sweden before 2007, when he drew a sketch of Muhammad with a dog's body. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims and Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Al-Qaida put a bounty on Vilks' head. In 2010, two men tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden.
Under police protection
Lind told the AP that Vilks was forced to live under police protection since then "due to the fact that he made use of his freedom of expression and his artistic freedom."
The outlet said a woman from Pennsylvania in 2014 pleaded guilty in a plot to kill him.
A year later a lone gunman attacked a free-speech seminar Vilks attended in Copenhagen, Denmark, the AP said, adding that he was widely believed to have been the intended target. Bodyguards got Vilks out unharmed, but the gunman ended up killing a Danish film director and wounding three police officers, the outlet added. The gunman soon killed a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue and wounded two more officers before being killed himself in a firefight with police, the AP said.
Drove through guardrail
The unmarked police car carrying Vilks apparently drove through a cable guardrail separating the northbound and southbound lanes, the outlet said, citing senior police officer Stefan Siteus.
"We have found residues of tire on the E4 before the accident, and we are looking into the possibility that there could have been some kind of tire explosion," Siteus added at the news conference, according to the AP.
The car had puncture-proof tires, police added to the outlet.
The AP said two investigations are underway, and Chief Prosecutor Kajsa Sundgren told the outlet she had taken over a preliminary probe into whether "any police officer may have committed a crime in connection with the accident."
Police are investigating whether the accident may have been caused by someone else, Sundgren added to the AP.
"There is a lot of speculation going on about what may have happened, and I am careful not to contribute to them," Home Affairs Minister Mikael Damberg told the Swedish news agency TT, according to the AP. "I know that the police take this very seriously."
In regard to his controversial Muhammad sketch, the outlet said Vilks initially planned to display it at a Swedish cultural heritage center exhibit before it was removed over security concerns.
His sketch largely went unnoticed until a Swedish newspaper printed it with an editorial defending freedom of expression, the AP said, adding that the sketch is being shown as part of an exhibition in Warsaw, Poland, curated by "a right-wing director" aiming to "challenge left-wing political correctness."