The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which has played a key role in recent rebel victories, has killed 20 villagers from the Druze religious minority in a north-western Syrian village, local residents and activists said Thursday.
There were conflicting reports of the cause of the incident in the village of Qalb Lozeh in Idlib province.
Residents told dpa that a dispute erupted Wednesday when a Tunisian commander of the Syrian al-Qaeda branch, al-Nusra Front, demanded a local resident hand over his son, who was a Syrian Army conscript.
The family refused, saying that he was not there, and al-Nusra members opened fire, setting off a clash with locals.
Residents said that 20 villagers were killed, including three men over 70 and an 8-year-old.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that three members of al-Nusra Front were killed.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said the clash took place after the Tunisian commander ordered the confiscation of houses belonging to residents who supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Al-Nusra controls a string of Druze villages in the Jabal al-Sumaq area. It is reported to have required the minority, an Islamic sect whose full teachings are a secret among initiates, to conform to Sunni Islam and abandon their traditional shrines.
Influential Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt intervened with Syrian opposition leaders to try to resolve the dispute.
A statement from Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party said the problem in the village had been "contained" in cooperation with unnamed influential parties.
The killings were condemned by the Western- and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition National Coalition, which has previously hailed rebel victories spearheaded by al-Nusra.
Despite its affiliation with al-Qaeda, al-Nusra has generally collaborated with other Syrian rebel groups and played a key role in the recent rebel capture of the main cities in Idlib province, the biggest military setback for the government in months.
Al-Nusra has joined rebel forces battling the expansion of the Islamic State extremist group, which split in 2013 from al-Qaeda and has monopolized control of areas captured from the regime in eastern and north-eastern Syria.
Concentrated in the southern province of Suweida, the Druze community makes up 3 percent of Syria's population.
Many Druze have sought to remain neutral since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, but some have joined local pro-government militias in Suweida, and some Druze officers have played a prominent role in the Syrian Army.
Sunni Muslim hardliners who now dominate the armed opposition view the Druze as heretics.
Jabal al-Sumaq has 18 small Druze farming villages.
Druze officials in Lebanon and Syria have been tightlipped about the situation there, hoping to protect residents living under al-Nusra rule.
This article has been edited from its original form.
© 2021 dpa GmbH