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U.S. returns Syrian border guards wounded in assault

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria -- The United States returned five Syrian border guards wounded during a U.S. assault on the Syrian-Iraqi border, officials announced Monday, the latest move to repair strained U.S.-Syrian ties.

Syria, for its part, has ejected Iraqi officials and closed offices of Palestinian militants, declaring it is a partner in the U.S. war against terrorism.

The handover Sunday followed secretive negotiations between Syrian and American officials over the details of returning the Syrian guards, who were wounded when U.S. warplanes and ground forces attacked a convoy thought to include wanted Iraqi fugitives fleeing into Syria.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday the role of the Syrian border guards during the June 18 skirmish remained unclear.

"We have things that would suggest that someone on the Syrian side was involved, but whether it was 'the Syrians,' quote, unquote, as you put it, meaning people connected with the government ... I haven't got a definitive answer," he told reporters.

Rumsfeld said it was "entirely possible" some people in the targeted convoy got away.

Three of the guards were seriously wounded in the fighting and taken to a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad. The two others were treated by American forces in western Iraq.

A Syrian government official said Monday the guards were handed over to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border and were taken to a hospital for further treatment.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed the handover, and other U.S. officials said it took place on Sunday.

Syrian-U.S. relations plummeted during the war in Iraq as Washington accused Damascus -- one of the war's loudest opponents -- of harboring wanted Iraqi officials and sending military equipment across its border to aid Saddam Hussein's forces.

Syria denied all those accusations. But it also said it was difficult to stop people or goods from crossing its 310-mile desert border with Iraq.

Tensions began easing after the United States said Syria had closed its border. Syrian President Bashar Assad said in recent interviews that Iraqi officials who had slipped into his country were sent back.

Syria also stressed it was a partner in the U.S.-led war on terror and last month closed the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups accused by the United States of terrorism.

However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday "the larger question of whether Syria has distanced itself from the terrorist groups, has taken steps to prevent their operations ... is one that remains important to us."

"We've seen some limited steps, but those steps overall remain inadequate, totally inadequate," Boucher said.

Following the June 18 border incident, Syrian officials summoned the U.S. ambassador to Damascus to protest the attack, and Monday's Syrian government statement said the U.S. handover was in response to the Syrian protests.

But Damascus has gone out of its way to downplay the border clash, and neither it nor Washington has referred to the shootout as a possible violation of territorial sovereignty.

On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said his government wanted to avoid escalating tensions with Washington and was instead engaged in quiet diplomacy over the return of the border guards.

"This subject has had media attention more than it deserved," al-Sharaa told reporters.

U.S. officials have been unable to explain the full circumstances of the attack, including why houses in a nearby village as well as the vehicles were struck and who was being targeted.

Initial news reports following the clash indicated American officials had believed, based on intelligence provided by a newly captured senior adviser to Saddam, that the ousted Iraqi leader and his two sons might have been in the convoy attempting to escape into Syria.

Asked about such reports during an interview Monday with Arab satellite Al-Jazeera station, al-Sharaa said he could not confirm or deny the claims.

"What I can say is that maybe many Iraqi officials entered (Syria) but they left," he said. "They did not stay in Syria."

On Monday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "high-value targets" were pursued in the convoy, but it was unclear whether they included Saddam or his two sons.

Rumsfeld said that of approximately 20 Iraqis detained in the raid, about three were held for extensive questioning. Myers said those three were still being interrogated as of Friday. Other defense officials had said last week that all 20 of those captured had been released.


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