Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria has killed at least 20 villagers belonging to the minority Druze sect after a confrontation in northwestern Idlib province, where the militants have forced hundreds of members of the sect to covert to Sunni Islam, an activist group and a Syrian opposition faction said Thursday.
The killings in Idlib are the deadliest against the minority Druze sect, which has been split between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, since Syria's crisis began in March 2011.
The Druze villagers were killed Wednesday in Qalb Lawzeh village in the Jabal al-Summaq region, where Nusra Front fighters have dug up historic graves and destroyed shrines in recent months.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shooting occurred after the Nusra Front tried to confiscate the home of a Druze government official in the village. It said the militants shot one villager dead, prompting another to grab one of the Nusra Front men's rifles and kill a member of the Al Qaeda affiliate. The Observatory said the militants later brought reinforcements and opened fire, killing 20 villagers.
The main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said "dozens of Druze young men" died in the shooting. It said an armed clash broke out "following an aggression by Nusra Front members."
Syrian state news agency SANA said a "horrible massacre" killed 30 people, including five members of the same family in Qalb Lawzeh. SANA added that the militants torched several homes.
Meanwhile, in southern Syria, Western-backed rebels on Thursday entered for the first time the predominantly Druze province of Sweida, which has been spared Syria's four-year civil war that has killed more than 220,000 people.
Activists said the rebels entered Thursday the Thaala military air base outside the provincial capital, also named Sweida, capturing parts of it from government forces.
A Sweida resident told The Associated Press that the city of Sweida was subjected to government shelling on Thursday that killed one person and wounded six. It was not clear if the shells strayed from the fighting around the air base. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for his own safety.
The developments in Idlib and Sweida bring the Druze community into the heart of the Syrian conflict. The Druze, a 10th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, made up about 5 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million people. Lebanon and Israel also have large Druze communities.
The top Druze cleric in Lebanon, Sheikh Naim Hassan, condemned the killings in Idlib and said efforts are being made to "contain this regrettable and painful incident."
Idlib activist Asaad Kanjo, who is currently in Turkey, said via Skype that very few details have emerged about the Idlib killings. Activists estimate that several hundred Druze have been forced to convert to Sunni Islam since the Nusra Front seized the Jabal al-Summaq region last year.
Former Lebanese Cabinet Minister Wiam Wahhab, a Druze politician close to Assad, said that Qatar and Turkey must be held responsible for the attack in Qalb Lawzeh because of their support for the Nusra Front.
Wahhab said Druze clerics "were executed" in the village square in Idlib. He called on all the Druze in Sweida to carry arms and defend their villages, and urged Assad's government to supply the residents with weapons.
"We need weapons in Sweida and any delay in supplying us with weapons, the Syrian state will be responsible," he said. "We want to fight with the state and with the army to defend ourselves."
In recent months, Assad's forces have suffered a string of defeats at the hands of rebels, a local Al Qaeda affiliate and the Islamic State group.
Syrian TV said one of its crews in Sweida came under rebel fire that killed the crew's driver and wounded reporter Anas al-Salman and cameraman Dergham Dbeisi.
Rebel Maj. Issam al-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front alliance, said the Thaala air base in Sweida province was captured by rebels on Thursday, two days after opposition fighters seized another key military base in southern Syria.
Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in southern Syria, said troops withdrew from Thaala to other parts of Sweida province. The Observatory said rebels took parts of the base.
But Syrian state TV denied the claims, saying government troops had repelled the attack on Thaala.
Also in the south, the Observatory and state TV said a Syrian army warplane crashed in Sweida. State TV said an investigation is underway to know that cause of the crash.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.