By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) -Jordanian soldiers killed at least 27 armed smugglers on Thursday and wounded others as they crossed the border from Syria during a dawn snowstorm with a large quantity of amphetamines, the army said.
Others also carrying drugs fled back into Syria during the attempted crossing, the latest among a growing number of such incidents over the past year, many involving firefights, that have prompted the army to toughen its rules of engagement with smugglers.
Several others among the smugglers, who were “supported by other armed groups”, were wounded, the army said in a statement in the largest number of casualties inflicted by smugglers in many years.
“We will strike with an iron fist..those who dare think of tampering with our national security,” the army statement said.
It did not specify where along the 370-km (230-mile) border with Syria the incursion took place but Syrian sources said the incident occurred in an area northeast of the city of Mafraq in Jordan.
Several smuggler groups under cover of dense fog crossed the border by foot before instructions were given to shoot on site in an ambush laid by the army, a Syrian source familiar with the incident told Reuters.
Among at least 80 armed smugglers involved in the widescale operation, there were around 50 missing and believed dead, according to another Syrian source.
Jordan’s main border crossing with Syria, a major regional route that carries billions of dollars of trade for countries across the region, has also been used to smuggle drugs hidden in Syrian trucks heading to the lucrative Gulf market.
The drugs are mostly an amphetamine known as Captagon. War-torn Syria has become the region’s main production site for a multi-billion dollar trade destined for Jordan, Iraq and Europe.
The illicit drug trade finances a proliferation of militias and pro-government paramilitary forces that a decade of conflict in Syria has spawned, according to U.N. experts and Western diplomats.
Jordanian officials say Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and militias who control much of southern Syria are behind the surge in smuggling and support the smugglers’ operations. Hezbollah denies the accusations.
Senior Jordanian officials say they have raised their concerns with Syrian authorities and Russia, a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said last week the country was being targetted by drug dealers only days after a Jordanian officer was killed in a shoot-out with smugglers.
Syrian authorities have in recent months announced several major interceptions of drugs destined for Gulf markets and say they are cracking down on domestic production of Captagon.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra and John Stonestreet)