Just the beginning.

(AFP) — Syrian rebels once welcomed fighters of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front with open arms but disputes over the extremists’ strict interpretation of Islam are beginning to strain the ties.

In a rebel rear base at Atme in northern Syria, on the border with Turkey, at least four fights have broken out in recent weeks between jihadists and mainstream rebels, witnesses and residents told AFP.

One fight degenerated into an exchange of fire.

While the majority of the population — and the rebels — are Sunni Muslims, close interaction with people from dozens of other religious groups has over centuries softened most Syrians’ interpretation of Islam.

But the jihadists, who are linked to Al-Qaeda, follow a puritanical interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, considering for example a man smoking a cigarette or choosing to shave his beard to have become “anti-Islamic”.

In the village of Qah in the northwest Syria province of Idlib, Al-Nusra Front fighters arrested a man for cursing after a minor car accident, sparking a heated standoff with villagers when they brought him before an Islamic tribunal.

The arrested man was the brother of a respected local leader and longtime insurgent, who quickly mobilised dozens of armed men, residents told AFP on condition of anonymity.

After a prolonged face-off with Al-Nusra fighters during which some jihadists were kidnapped, Qah residents secured the release of the arrested man in exchange for an Al-Nusra commander.

The jihadist commander was released only after his long Salafist beard had been trimmed, the sources added.

Meanwhile, in Atme, prayer-goers stopped a Jordanian sheikh loyal to Al-Nusra from speaking at the local mosque, sparking a fist fight between locals and jihadists, residents said.

Also in Idlib province, a scuffle between protesters with opposing views on Syria’s revolt broke out in rebel-held Saraqeb on Friday.

Supporters of an Islamist rebel faction tore up the flag of the Syrian revolution during an anti-regime protest filmed by activists and distributed online.

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