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Apr 16, 11:37 AM EDT

Jordanian jets strike vehicles on Syrian border


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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- Jordanian military warplanes struck a convoy of vehicles as they were trying to enter Jordan from Syria, the army said in a statement Wednesday, in an unusual move at a time of tensions between the desert kingdom and Damascus.

A Syrian military official said the vehicles did not belong to the Syrian army.

The Jordanian military statement said the attack happened at 10:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) after "camouflaged" vehicles driving in a rugged area near the border ignored demands to stop from security forces. The statement said Jordanian aircraft fired warning shots at the vehicles, but they did not stop. The warplanes then destroyed the vehicles.

The statement did not say how many vehicles were in the convoy, nor did it offer casualty figures. It also did not specify whether the vehicles were targeted on Syrian or Jordanian soil.

Jordan's armed forces routinely arrest smugglers trying to cross its desert border with Syria, but Wednesday's strike appeared to be the first time since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 that Jordan has openly used military aircraft to hit vehicles along the border.

Jordan's relations with Syria crumbled after the uprising began in March 2011 to overturn the rule of President Bashar Assad. The desert kingdom is an important conduit for weapons and supplies to reach the rebels, say activists and fighters within Syria.

Immediately after news emerged of the airstrikes, a Syrian military official said no military vehicles had been heading toward the Jordanian border, according to a statement released on state-run television.

"What was targeted by Jordanian aircraft does not belong to the Syrian Arab army," the statement said.

The strikes occurred after Syrian aircraft killed at least four people early Wednesday in a rebel-held town along the Lebanese border, activists said, as pro-government forces intensify their campaign against some of the last rebel strongholds on a valuable supply line.

The air raid hit rebels on the edge of the town of Zabadani, wounding 10 people, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He and a Damascus-based activist Ammar al-Hassan said the strike came during intensified shelling of the town.

Zabadani is in a part of Syria protruding into the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. The town and nearby Madaya are on the Qalamoun frontier with Lebanon, areas that once served as opposition supply routes to nearby rural Damascus.

Syrian forces, bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have systematically captured most of the rebel-held towns along the mountainous frontier since launching an offensive in the region in November.

On Wednesday, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad took the town of Housh Arab, the state-run SANA news agency reported. It fell after pro-Assad forces took the nearby town of Arsal al-Ward on Tuesday.

Rebels still hold the town of Talfita in Qalamoun, but it is now surrounded by government-held territory.

Al-Hassan said those in Zabadani helped smuggle wounded fighters into the nearby Sunni Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, and allowed rebels to funnel supplies through the town.

"From the days of the peaceful protests of the revolution, it was a chief smuggling place and it remains that way," al-Hassan said.

Still, al-Hassan and another activist, Akram al-Shami, said while they expected government forces to retake Zabadani, Assad's troops face difficult conditions.

The town sits on a hill and is isolated from other parts of Qalamoun, meaning it will be difficult amass ground troops and Syrian forces will have to rely mostly on air power, they said.

"They have to cross a lot of valleys and mountains," al-Shami said.

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Aji reported from Damascus. Diaa Hadid contributed reporting from Beirut.

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