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Syria demands return of border guards

Pentagon still investigating the incident

The U.S. military is trying to identify the remains of those killed in an attack on a convoy of Iraqis linked to Saddam Hussein's regime.
The U.S. military is trying to identify the remains of those killed in an attack on a convoy of Iraqis linked to Saddam Hussein's regime.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Syrian government has demanded the speedy return of five border guards being held by U.S. troops after an incident near the Iraqi-Syrian border last week, the State Department said Tuesday.

Three of the guards were wounded during a U.S. attack on a convoy in the Iraqi border town of Qaim last Wednesday. (Gallery: Images from the attack)

A State Department official said there appeared to have been a "communications breakdown" with the U.S. Central Command, and details are sketchy about how the events unfolded.

"We still haven't gotten a good, accurate accounting," said this source.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday the Pentagon was still investigating what occurred.

"We need to allow some time so that people can sort through what took place and then get back to us," Rumsfeld said.

He said the Syrians' return was being discussed "by the appropriate people in the U.S. government and the Syrian government."

"The process by which that will take place is something that's being discussed in other channels," he said. "And it will happen, and I don't know that anyone needs a reason why it hasn't happened in five minutes or two days or five days."

The U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus -- the second most-senior U.S. diplomat in the embassy -- met with Syrian officials Monday, the State Department source said.

Based on intelligence related to the capture of Gen. Abid Hamid Mahmud, the closest confidant and chief bodyguard to ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces last week targeted the convoy of six or seven vehicles leaving a compound in Qaim en route to Syria.

The convoy was believed to be carrying former senior leaders of the Iraqi regime. (Map)

According to government sources, a U.S. Air Force Predator drone tracked the vehicles, which split into two groups.

A special operations AC-130 gunship was called in and there was a strike involving an F-15 fighter and Apache helicopters, the sources said.

At some point, the Predator launched its Hellfire missiles, the AC-130 opened fire with its 105 mm cannon, and a commando team from Task Force 20 moved in.

After the initial attack, a person was spotted on foot near the border with Syria. As U.S. special operations forces pursued the individual, some Syrian border guards showed up, the sources said.

Pentagon officials said at that point the U.S. troops may have crossed the Syrian border. In any case, there was an engagement in which the three Syrian border guards were wounded. It was not clear whether they were shot from the ground or from the air.

Rumsfeld would not say whether U.S. forces had been authorized to cross into Syrian territory in hot pursuit of Iraqi fugitives or even whether that had occurred during the attack.

A senior Syrian official told CNN there was a firefight but insisted the Syrian border guards were "not trying to provoke" and called it an "isolated incident."

Imad Mustapha, deputy ambassador to the Syrian Embassy in Washington, said some border guards were receiving medical treatment by the U.S. military. But he said the guards were not in U.S. custody.

Some local villagers claimed the people killed in the attack were sheep smugglers. Pentagon officials said they might have been smugglers, but U.S. intelligence strongly suggested high-level Iraqis, not sheep, were their cargo.

Most of the 20 people captured in the attack have been released, Pentagon officials said.

DNA tests will likely be conducted on Iraqis killed, some of whom were thought to have been members of Saddam's government.

The tests may rule out that Saddam or his sons were in the convoy, but it may not tell who was killed and whether they were ordinary Iraqis or low-level officials.

Asked whether senior officials might have died, Rumsfeld said, "I have no reason to believe that."

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