The jihadist Al-Nusra Front said in an Internet statement on Sunday its fighters attacked three villages in Syria's Homs province and killed dozens of Alawites five days earlier.
“The people's wall of fear has been broken, as this was the first time these villages were entered and such a high number was killed,” the Al-Qaeda-linked group said in the statement published on a jihadist forum.
Al-Nusra said its fighters entered the villages of Massudiyeh, Maksar al-Hissan and Jab al-Jerah on Tuesday and killed 30 members of the Alawite community, to which President Bashar al-Assad's clan belongs.
The statement said Al-Nusra fighters were urged by an Islamic jurist “to kill the Nusairis, enemies of God”, using a pejorative term for Alawites.
The attack was “in revenge for the killing in cold blood of Muslims and their women in Eastern Ghouta” near Damascus, where the opposition claims 1,400 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack on August 21.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported this week on the attack that 12 civilians were killed, before on Sunday updating its toll to 22 civilians killed in Maksar al-Hissan.
It said among them were 16 Alawites including four above the age of 80 and four children aged between nine and 12.
The watchdog said five soldiers loyal to Assad were also killed.
The region, mostly home to Alawites and Bedouins, has been largely free of fighting over the past year.
Other areas of Homs province have seen some of the fiercest fighting in Syria's 30-month war.
Several areas of the provincial capital, dubbed “the capital of the revolution”, have been destroyed as the Assad regime bombarded rebel-held areas.
Sectarian tensions have soared in Homs, which is home to sizeable Sunni, Alawite and Christian communities.