DAMASCUS, Syria – The United States has returned five Syrian border guards who were taken by U.S. forces after being wounded during a battle on the Syrian-Iraqi border, a Syrian government spokesman said Monday.
The battle took place June 18 when U.S. warplanes and ground troops attacked a convoy thought to include fugitive Iraqi leaders fleeing into Syria (search). The fighting spilled over into Syrian territory — but both Damascus (search) and Washington have sought to avoid an increase of tensions over the incident.
The five guards were handed over to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border and taken to hospital to further treatment, the government spokesman said, quoted by the official news agency SANA. The report had no further details.
Syrian and U.S. officials had been quietly working out details for handing over the border guards, three of whom were seriously injured in the fighting and had been and taken to a military hospital in Baghdad. The other two were treated in western Iraq.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Sunday that Damascus wanted to avoid escalating tensions with the United States. "This subject has had media attention more than it deserved," he told at a press conference.
U.S. officials have been unable to explain the full circumstances of the clash near the desert border post of Aby Kamal (search), including why houses in a nearby village and the vehicles were struck and who was being targeted.
The U.S. military suspected at the time that officials of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime were trying to escape into Syria. One Iraqi was killed in the attack, U.S. officials said.
The violence threatened to further damage U.S.-Syrian relations that are already strained over Iraq.
Syria was a loud opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while U.S. officials at one stage accused Damascus of harboring fleeing former Iraqi officials and sending weapons to Saddam's forces — claims Syria rejected.