Saddam's former bodyguards clash with Syrian forces near Damascus

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The Independent Online

The state-run Sana news agency reported an information ministry official as saying the battle erupted at 1am on Qassioun Mountain, which overlooks Damascus and is two miles south-west of the capital. It was unclear if any of the ousted Iraqi dictator's former aides were among those detained.

This was the second day of clashes within Syria related to the fighting in neighbouring Iraq. On Sunday, Syria claimed it was cracking down on militants - a persistent US demand - when it announced its forces had killed an Arab extremist near the Lebanese border and arrested 34 other foreign extremists.

Syria has been under intense pressure to root out suspected militants, who the US and Iraq claim are using Syrian territory to infiltrate into neighbouring Iraq to fight coalition forces.

Police Major Ahmad Hijazi was killed in yesterday's clashes and two other soldiers and two policemen were wounded, said the information ministry official.

Security forces also detained a Jordanian suspected militant, Sharif Ayed Saeed al-Smady, and the wife of his brother. No further details were provided on the woman.

It was also unclear how many suspected militants were involved in the battle. The official said the operation was mounted after several days of surveillance of the suspected militant group, which included those wanted for terrorist-related crimes and armed robbery.

Security forces are continuing operations against the group. The latest violence followed Sunday's clashes that killed what Syria described as an Arab extremist, plus two Syrian soldiers, near the Lebanese border. Syria's information ministry said on its website on Sunday that the US pressure was aimed at forcing Syria to change its "position supporting resistance of occupation" - a reference to the militant Hizbollah group in Lebanon, which Washington considers a terrorist organisation.

Last month, Syrian forces raided the hide-out of a group of suspected terrorists near Damascus, killing two and foiling alleged bombing plots. Before that raid, security forces had been monitoring the Jund al-Sham for Jihad and Tawhid terrorist group and broke it up as the group planned bomb attacks in Damascus and its suburbs.

Terrorist attacks are rare in this country. It is run by the Syrian Baath Party, which has used heavy-handed tactics to crack down against any form of dissent or instability.