Four Syrian drug smugglers killed in clashes with Jordanian guards - sources

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - At least four Syrian drug smugglers were killed and several were injured after a shootout at the weekend with Jordanian army patrols near the Syrian-Jordanian border, residents and security officials said on Sunday.

They said local nomads had found some bodies near the border area south of Syria's southern Sweida province during a search for missing smugglers who had been part of a large operation involving tens of smugglers.

"There is a group of smugglers among those dead who are still missing," said Rayan Maarouf, a civic activist in the majority Druze province of Sweida and editor of Suwayda 24, a local website that covers the southern region, suggesting more bodies have yet to be found.

One of the smuggler groups succeeded in crossing the border and dropping their hauls, Maarouf said, citing local residents familiar with the incident who reported heavy exchanges of gun fire over two nights.

"The shootings led to damage to some homes in several villages," he added, mentioning the Syrian villages of Mughair and Kherbet Awad on the northeastern stretch of the 370-km (230 mile) border between the two neighbouring countries.

Jordan's armed forces did not report any deaths but said in a statement that they had foiled an attempt to smuggle a large quantity of illicit drugs from Syria and had shot at armed smugglers who crossed the border.

"There was direct targeting that led to the injury of one smuggler and the fleeing of the rest of them deep inside Syria," the army said in a statement.

The sharp rise in smuggling attempts led Jordan earlier this year to change its army rules of engagement along the border, giving its military the authority to use overwhelming force.

The authorities carried out a search of the area later and found large quantities of drugs - mostly an amphetamine known as Captagon - ammunition and machinery.

Jordanian officials say Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group and militias who control much of southern Syria are behind the surge in smuggling, where nomads with tribal links are employed to transport the drugs.

Hezbollah denies the accusations. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government denies involvement in drug-making and smuggling and says it is stepping up its campaign to curb the lucrative trade.

There is a thriving market for Captagon in the Gulf, and U.N. and Western anti-narcotics drug officials say Syria, shattered by a decade of civil war, has become the region's main production site for a multi-billion dollar drugs trade that also exports to Europe.

The Jordanian army said it was bracing for an escalation in confrontations with armed smugglers trying to drop large amounts of drugs along the rugged border terrain with Syria.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Hugh Lawson)