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Al-Nusra kills at least 20 Druze in Syria's Idlib province

Killings come despite assurances by al-Nusra leader that they would not target minorities
Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front fighters fly flags in Aleppo as they head to the frontline (AFP)

At least twenty Druze have been killed by al-Qaeda-affiliate Al-Nusra Front (JAN) in Syria’s Idlib province, despite reassurances from JAN’s leader last week that religious minorities would not be persecuted by the group.

Local activists alleged the killings happened in the village of Qalb Lawzah in Idlib province, which is now controlled by the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fateh) coalition who took control of nearly the whole province in April.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said villagers had protested after a Tunisian JAN leader "tried to seize a house belonging to a Druze resident of Qalb Lawzah, claiming he was loyal to the regime".

"Relatives of the owner of the house protested and tried to stop him, then there was an altercation and shooting.”

"The Tunisian leader brought his men and accused the Druze residents of the village of blasphemy and opened fire on them killing at least 20 people, among them elderly people and at least one child."

Syrian state news agency SANA describe the act as an "appalling massacre committed against the people of Qalb Lawzah that claimed the lives of at least 30 people".

In an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic last week, JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said that his group would not target religious minorities in Syria saying that JAN “only fights those who fight us”.

SANA also accused JAN allies Ahrar al-Sham of engaging in the violence, though BBC sources claim that the group in fact eventually intervened to stop the bloodshed.

The Druze community have historically been very secretive about their practices and customs and have generally attempted to stay neutral during times of conflict.

Walid Jumblatt, head of the Druze community in Lebanon, wrote on his official Twitter account on Thursday that contacts were underway to "calm the situation" after the deaths.

Abdul Majeed, a Druze civilian from a village neighbouring Qalb Loza, told the Syria Direct website that sources had told him the villagers were in a state of shock following the killings.

“Nusra is not allowing anyone to enter or exit," he said.

"People are panicked, they don't know what's going to happen. Leaving the village isn't easy, most people don't have enough to make ends meet, but remaining means danger and humiliation," he said. "People are confused and anxious; they're hardly eating, drinking or sleeping. In short, the situation is extremely tense and confusing.”

Majeed said that the JAN leader in Idlib had demanded the villagers disarm.

“During and after the fight, some people from neighbouring Druze villages tried to mediate with the Sheikh Hamud, the Jabhat a-Nusra emir in Idlib, in order to bury the hatchet," he said. "But Sheikh Hamud demanded that the Druze give him a thousand rifles, claiming that the people of the villages own rifles."

"That was an excuse to shirk Nusra's guilt and to continue acting the way they were. The Druze [of the area] have never raised a weapon in anyone's face since the beginning of the revolution. They only own a limited number of rifles, if they're available at all."

Druze made up about 3 percent of Syria's population before uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.