Syrian soldier 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syria showed off new security measures on its long and porous border with Iraq during an organized tour for foreign diplomats, military attaches and journalists on Saturday.
Twenty-nine diplomats, including the US military attachÃ©, were allowed on the rare inspection of Syria's side of the Tanaf border crossing, about 300 kilometers northeast of the capital, Damascus. They were then driven for some 200 kilometers along the border marked by police outposts and tall sand barriers.
Authorities have increased the number of outposts to one every 400 meters in some zones along the 570 kilometer border, a Syrian officer said, stating each outpost was staffed with half-dozen soldiers.
"There is no infiltration (into Iraq) here," the officer said, speaking on conditions of anonymity along with Syrian military regulations. However, several Iraqis have been caught smuggling ammunition and tobacco into Syria, he said.
The United States and some Iraqi officials accuse Syria of not doing enough to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria says it has taken all necessary measures but that it is impossible to fully control the sprawling desert along the border.
Syrian authorities have also complained in the past that their border guards lack sufficient equipment and intelligence. They say Britain has turned down their request for night-vision binoculars.
But the Syrian officer at Tanaf said the situation has improved since guards were provided with "reconnaissance vehicles and developed communication systems." He did not elaborate.
Most diplomats declined to talk to reporters during the trip, but Bahrain's ambassador, Wahid al-Sayar, said it appeared that "Syria is serious in controlling its border with Iraq."
Al-Sayar added that security measures taken by Iraqi border guards were not visible during the tour, and called for "cooperation on both sides" for more effective border patrolling.
The Tanaf border crossing was a major gateway for Iraqis fleeing violence in their country following the 2003 US-led invasion and the ousting of Saddam Hussein.
Over 1,5 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria, but the numbers seem to have decreased drastically since Damascus began imposing visa restrictions on Iraqis last month.
Mohammed Awad, who heads the immigration department at Tanaf, said only 400 to 500 Iraqis are entering Syria daily, down from almost 15,000 before restrictions were imposed.
And the number of those returning to Iraq have recently increased fivefold to about 2,500 a day, he said. The Iraqi government also says large numbers of refugees are returning to Iraq, encouraged by declining violence in their country.
The US State Department said this week that Syria has agreed to allow US interviewers into the country to screen Iraqi refugees for admission to the United States, clearing a major obstacle to the Bush administration's resettlement program.
Syria had for months refused to issue visas to the interviewers amid deepening tensions between Washington and Damascus.
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