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Syrian Police Battle Arab Militants


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

For the second time in a week, Syrian security forces battled Arab militants on the border with Lebanon and in the Syrian capital. A Syrian police officer was killed and four others were wounded in the shootout in Damascus. The armed group included Iraqi men who had once worked as Saddam Hussein's bodyguards. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

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DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Syria's prime-time television news program broadcast interviews with three Syrian policemen wounded in the shootout. From their hospital beds, with fresh bandages and painful grimaces, they said they had chased the group up a mountain road overlooking Damascus. It's a popular area where Syrians gather in the evenings to eat and stroll in the cool air. The militants began firing randomly at the crowds. As the police closed in, the gunmen managed to kidnap one of the police officers and shot and killed him. Two of the men were eventually arrested.

For Syrians, it was a shocking story. Terror attacks are rare in this tightly controlled country. Dr. Mahdi Dakhlallah, Syria's information minister, says the militant group included Jordanians and Iraqis.

Dr. MAHDI DAKHLALLAH (Syria's Information Minister): An investigation is under way, and it seems that they are part of a bigger group of terrorists who wanted to work in Iraq or in Lebanon.

AMOS: The Iraqis, says Dakhlallah, once worked for deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, members of Saddam Fedayeen, a terror squad he organized before the US invasion. The Jordanian government said one of the men arrested after the shootout is wanted in Jordan on charges of armed robbery and murder. Jordan's state news agency quoted unnamed security officials who said the wanted man had escaped from Jordan last year. Syria has been under intense pressure from Washington to crack down on militants. The United States and the Iraqi government claim they are using Syrian territory to infiltrate into neighboring Iraq to join the insurgency. Syrian officials say they are cracking down. But Syria still allows all Arab visitors to enter the country without a visa, says Information Minister Dakhlallah.

Dr. DAKHLALLAH: I think we have to think about that. It's a big problem, how to deal with this.

AMOS: Syria's open-door policy for Arabs is part of the regime's ideology, a commitment to Arab nationalism. It's also a money-maker. The majority of tourists in Syria are Arabs, Turks and Iranians. It would be a dramatic step to require visas for Arab visitors, but Syrians have begun to question their government's ability to monitor who comes in and out of the country. The shootout witnessed by Syrians out for dinner on a weeknight has only raised more fears that there are more attacks to come. Minister Dakhlallah acknowledges Syria's visa policy may have to change.

Dr. DAKHLALLAH: We have to know where--when Arab comes here to Syria, where he live or where he goes.

AMOS: Last week, another gun battle near Syria's border with Lebanon underlines the problem. According to Syrian sources, a Tunisian man and his wife approached the border crossing. She had concealed a weapon under her long dress and veil, the traditional modest clothing of religious Muslims. The man used the weapon to kill a Syrian border guard. The gunman was also killed. But Syrian authorities were able to trace him back to a safe house near the border where 34 Arab militants were arrested. Dakhlallah says this shows Syria is cracking down on militants.

Dr. DAKHLALLAH: The US spoke about support of terrorism, and you see we are fighting against real terrorism here in the region.

AMOS: Arab security sources say many of these Arab militants have been trained in Iraq, have firsthand experience in urban warfare. Some have left Iraq's battlefields and now are at war with Arab governments. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.