Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra killed at least 20 members of Syria's Druze minority in a shootout sparked by a dispute over a house, activists said Thursday.
The incident took place in the village of Qalb Loze in Idlib province when residents attempted to stop a Tunisian al-Nusra member from seizing a home that was either empty or owned by a supporter of the Syrian regime, according to conflicting accounts. The dispute erupted into a gunfight that ultimately left between 20 and 30 villagers dead as well as at least one al-Nusra fighter.
Druze is an offshoot of Shia Islam that the hardline Sunni al Qaeda view as heretical. Idlib is almost entirely controlled by an alliance of mostly Islamist rebel groups, of which al Nusra is the most powerful. The group has held the area around the village for over a year.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers intelligence from a network of local activists, said in a statement that an al-Nusra fighter had shot and killed one Qalb Loze resident during the course of the dispute, at which point a crowd of villagers had seized his weapon and fired back, killing one of the militants.
The jihadists then called for reinforcements and "opened heavy machine gun fire on the civilians leading to the death of 20," SOHR said, adding that at least one child and elderly person were amongst the dead.
Local ARA News quoted local activists as saying that al Nusra had executed "dozens" at the village entrance and gave the death toll as 30.
The state-run SANA news agency also said that at least 30 had been killed, including five members of one family, three clerics and two women.
The Druze make up only a small percentage of the Syrian population and are concentrated in the majority Druze city of As-Suwaida, although there are a number of other mostly isolated villages elsewhere in the country. In the course of the conflict they have generally stayed out of the fighting, but parts of the community have backed the governments whilst others have sympathized with the opposition.
Walid Jumblatt, the staunchly anti-regime leader of Lebanon's Druze community, said via his Twitter feed on Thursday that attempts were being made to calm the situation. The Al-Anbaa news site, which is owned by his Progressive Socialist Party, confirmed the attack, but said it would be addressed in conjunction with the Syrian opposition and that a joint effort would be made to those in the village's safety, adding that they had supported the revolution since day one and sheltered displaced Syrians in their homes.
Al Nusra's leader Abu Mohammed al Jolani said in an Al Jazeera television interview earlier this month that religious minorities in Syria would be treated as "brothers" but only if they abandoned their "deviant" religious beliefs and stopped their children from joining government forces.
The group is also alleged to have desecrated Druze tombs and shrines and forced some Druze to convert to Sunni Islam.
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