Jordan makes biggest drugs bust in years at Saudi border

A view shows confiscated drugs at an unknown location in Jordan

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) -Jordan has foiled two plots to smuggle millions of captagon pills through a border post to Saudi Arabia, the biggest seizure in years of drugs bound for lucrative Gulf markets from what Jordanian security officials say are Syria-based gangs with ties to Iran.

The haul was discovered hidden in a shipment of construction vehicles at the Omari crossing in Jordan's eastern desert before it was due to enter Saudi Arabia, officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Law enforcement authorities had for weeks tracked two separate operations bringing the consignment of drugs into Jordan across the northern border with Syria. Unlike in previous busts that were carried out as drugs entered Jordan, the authorities waited to make the seizure until the drugs transited through the country and were due to leave.

War-ravaged Syria has become the region's main site for the mass production of the addictive, amphetamine-type stimulant known as captagon, with Jordan a key transit route to the oil-rich Gulf states, Western anti-narcotics officials say.

Jordanian officials, like their Western allies, say that Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group and pro-Iranian militias who control much of southern Syria are behind a surge in the multi-billion-dollar drugs and weapons trade. Iran and Hezbollah deny the allegations.

U.N. experts and U.S. and European officials say the illicit drug trade finances a proliferation of pro-Iranian militias and Syrian pro-government paramilitary forces, after more than a decade of conflict in Syria.

Since last year, Jordan's army has conducted several pre-emptive airstrikes inside Syria that Jordanian officials say targeted militias linked to the drug trade and their facilities, in a bid to stem a rise in cross-border incursions.

Jordanian officials say they were forced to take matters into their own hands following meetings with their Syrian counterparts at which they expressed frustration that Damascus was not firmly acting to stem the smuggling.

Amman says it has provided names of key drug dealers and locations of manufacturing facilities and smuggling routes to Syrian authorities.

Jordan's King Abdullah called last month on Arab states to confront what the U.S. ally has called an alarming rise in incursions of drugs and weapons smugglers linked to Iranian militias operating in southern Syria.

"They seek to exploit the regional tensions to target Jordan and its neighbours..They are trying to flood the region with drugs to amass profits and harm the security and stability of our countries," said a senior Jordanian official who requested anonymity.

Jordan has also received extra U.S. military aid to improve security on its 375 km (230 mile) Syrian border. Jordanian officials say Washington has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars to establish border posts since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Ros Russell and Peter Graff)