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U.S. Returns Syrian Border Guards

U.S. Returns Syrian Border Guards

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- The United States has returned five Syrian border guards who were taken by American forces after being wounded during a battle on the Syrian-Iraqi border, a Syrian government spokesman said Monday.

With the handover, Damascus and Washington sought to quietly contain the fallout from an attack that could have further hurt relations already strained over the U.S.-led war and occupation in Iraq.

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. The fighting spilled over into Syrian territory, wounding the five, though the circumstances remain unclear.

The five guards were handed over to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border and taken to a hospital for further treatment, the government spokesman said Monday, quoted by the official news agency SANA. The report had no further details.

For days, Syrian and U.S. officials had been working out details for handing over the border guards, three of whom were seriously injured in the fighting and were 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 Washington. "This subject has had media attention more than it deserved," he told a press conference.

U.S. officials have been unable to explain the full circumstances of the clash near the desert border post of Abu Kamal, 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.

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.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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