Jordan seals last entry point for Syrian refugees after suicide blast

Jordan sealed its last entry point for Syrian refugees Tuesday after a cross-border suicide attack killed six members of the Jordanian security forces, wounded 14 and exposed the pro-Western kingdom's growing vulnerability to spillover from conflict next door.

Fate uncertain for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees stranded in remote desert areas

A woman lights candles during a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the Jordanian soldiers who were killed in an attack on a border military post near a camp for Syrian refugees, in Amman, Jordan. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Jordan sealed its last entry point for Syrian refugees Tuesday after a cross-border suicide attack killed six members of the Jordanian security forces, wounded 14 and exposed the pro-Western kingdom's growing vulnerability to spillover from conflict next door.

The closure raised questions about the fate of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are stranded in remote desert areas along the border, many of them for months, and depend on daily deliveries of food and water from the Jordanian side.

Jordan said its security comes first. Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Jordan had warned for months that militants, including those from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, are mingling with refugees in the two rapidly expanding encampments on the border and pose a serious security threat.

"The border will be closed," Momani told reporters. "We will not allow the crossing of people or vehicles through that area."

King Abdullah II said in a statement that Jordan will "respond with an iron fist" to anyone harming its borders or security, but did not lay out specifics.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault, the third against Jordanian security installations in seven months.

Syrian refugees board a Jordanian army vehicle after crossing into the country. Jordan has struggled to accommodate the roughly 600,000 Syrians in its communities and refugee camps. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

CBC News's Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel said the kingdom has "struggled to crack down" on ISIS sympathizers. 

The government has "jailed hundreds of people who have been promoting jihadism online," Stoffel said from Jerusalem. It is also "under a great strain" because of the roughly 600,000 Syrian refugees who live in Jordanian communities and refugee camps.

Suicide attack

Tuesday's attack was launched at dawn near Rukban, the larger of the two border camps.

The assailant drove a truck packed with explosives at high speed through an opening in the border, said Momani. "It reached our side of the border and it ended up exploding with the driver inside," he said.

The military said the blast targeted a Jordanian army post.

A Rukban resident said he saw a pickup truck crashing through a Jordanian border gate. Seconds later, a blast went off, followed by the sound of shooting, said the resident, who spoke to The Associated Press over the phone from the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from the authorities.

Cellphone photos from the camp show a cloud of grey smoke rising in the distance, with tents in the foreground.

Rukban and the smaller Hadalat camp house about 64,000 Syrians, according to estimates by international aid agencies. The camps have also attracted smugglers, war profiteers and members of various armed groups fighting in Syria's civil war.

The camps are located between two berms, or earthen barriers, that run parallel to the border, which is not clearly marked in the area. Rukban is just a few kilometres from the point where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet.

In recent weeks, international agencies stepped up deliveries of water, food and medical care for refugees at the berm. Aid workers set up makeshift delivery points on the Jordanian side every day and refugees climbed over the berm to pick up food parcels, get first aid or register with the UN refugee agency.

The arrangement kept aid workers and Jordanian troops out of the camps for security reasons. Instead, Jordanian troops stood on top of the southern berm to monitor distributions, firing tear gas or shooting in the air if order broke down.

A military helicopter transports an injured security member after Tuesday morning's blast, the deadliest attack along Jordan's tense border in recent memory. (Reuters)

In recent weeks, aid agencies had won Jordan's agreement to set up more prefab trailers in the area to improve distribution and refugee registration.

Momani said Tuesday that those plans were now on hold.

Instead, "we will be discussing ways through which we can send aid to the people on the other side of the border," he said, adding that details would be worked out by the UN refugee agency and the Jordanian military.

He did not elaborate. It's not clear how long refugees in the encampments can hold out without daily aid shipments.

The UN refugee agency said it is aware of heightened security restrictions, but will seek to provide continued support to the refugees. "A key issue will be to ensure the continued provision of water to this desolate location, given the inhospitable environment," said spokesman Andreas Needham in Geneva.

Even before the attack, conditions in the camps were deteriorating. Refugees are exposed to the extreme desert climate and mounds of garbage grow by the day.

An injured security member is transported in Jordan, which had been relatively safe until recently. (Reuters)

With files from CBC News