Syrian troops in deadly clash with Saddam ex-bodyguards

DAMASCUS (AFP) — Syrian forces captured two “terrorists” and a security officer was killed Monday in a dawn clash with extremists who included former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein, official media said.
The gunbattle on Mount Qassioun overlooking the Syrian capital was the second such firefight with extremists in recent days and comes amid intense US pressure on Syria to stop militants slipping over its border into Iraq.

“The clash took place early on Monday on Mount Qassioun with a group of people wanted for terrorist crimes, some of whom were former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein,” the former Iraqi president, the SANA News agency said.

“Two terrorists were arrested after the clash,” which claimed the life of security forces officer Ahmad Hijazi, it said, adding that two policemen and two other security force officers were wounded.

Quoting an information ministry official, SANA said that the two people arrested were Jordanian fugitive named Sharif Aied Saif Smadi and the wife of his brother Mohammed, who is also on the run. The Smadi brothers are wanted in Jordan for a series of petty crimes including armed robbery.

SANA said the clash took place after numerous days of searching by security forces, who were now on the trail of other members of the extremist group.

It paid tribute “to the capacity of these services to preserve the security and stability which Syria enjoys.”

According to Al Jazeera satellite channel, two people were killed in the clash, at least one of whom was a member of the group.

The new clash came a day after SANA reported two Syrian security personnel and an “Arab extremist” were killed in a firefight on the Lebanese border, which also saw an unspecified number of militants captured. That clash erupted when the “extremist” attempted to infiltrate Syria illegally from Lebanon along with other members of his group. SANA did not say when the incident took place.

The authorities also announced last month they had dismantled an “Islamic fundamentalist group” called the Organisation of Soldiers of the Levant which they said had been plotting attacks against various targets in Damascus, including the main law courts.

The group first emerged in late March when it claimed a car bombing against an international school in Qatar in which one Briton was killed.

Syria has taken a tough line against Islamic extremism, with the Muslim Brotherhood banned on pain of death since 1980 and an armed uprising in the following years suppressed with a strong hand.

The latest clash comes as US pressure on Syria to seal its borders to insurgents becomes ever more intense.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the Syrian government must know that foreign fighters are being funnelled through its territory into Iraq and “at a minimum are tolerating it.”

The United States has also frozen the assets of Syria’s Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan and top military intelligence chief Rustum Ghazali, accusing them of abetting terrorism.

In a sign of the increased diplomatic strains between Washington and Damascus, the United States embassy in Damascus cancelled its annual ceremony to mark the July 4 US independence day.

A diplomat said that the festivities, to which top Syrian officials are usually invited, had been replaced by voluntary work with non-governmental organisations.

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