Jabhat al-Nusra's claim of responsibility reflects the dark sectarian overtones of the civil war in Syria, where a rebel movement dominated by the country's Sunni Muslim majority is trying to topple a regime stacked with the president's fellow Alawites. Both sides stand accused of carrying out mass killings in the 2 1/2-year-old conflict.
In a statement posted online, Jabhat al-Nusra said that its fighters attacked the predominantly Alawite villages of Maksar al-Hasan, Jab al-Jarrah and al-Massoudiyeh in Homs province on Tuesday. It said they seized Maksar al-Hasan for 10 hours before being forced to withdraw, while the group's artillery destroyed the other two villages.
The group, which is among the most effective rebel outfits and designated a terrorist organization by the United States, said it killed more than 30 Alawites and seized 10 Russian-made weapons, ammunition, cars and other equipment in the assault.
It added that the attack aimed to avenge "the lives of Muslim sons and women who were killed in eastern Ghouta," a reference to the suspected chemical attack last month on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that the rebels and the U.S. blame on the Assad regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said late Sunday that activists have confirmed the death of 22 villagers from Maksar al-Hasan. It said the dead ranged in age from two to 90 years.
The Observatory said that government forces regained control of Maksar al-Husan on Tuesday, killing several Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in the process. It said five regime troops were also killed in the clashes.