AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan’s security services said on Wednesday they had thwarted a plot by sleeper cells of Islamic State militants to blow up civilian and military targets in the U.S.-allied Arab kingdom.
One of Jordan’s biggest security operations in years tracked down militants with suicide bomb belts to a hideout in the northern city of Irbid near the Syrian border, according to a statement carried by the state news agency Petra.
Seven militants were killed in clashes that began on Tuesday night and lasted until dawn and a police officer was also killed, it said. Security forces seized automatic weapons, munitions and explosives from the Islamic State cell.
“After diligent and detailed intelligence gathering the intelligence department was able soon to thwart a criminal and destructive plot linked by the terrorist Daesh group aimed at destabilizing national security,” the statement said, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
No details were given on the targets or the plot.
Two security sources said dozens of special forces had been involved in the operation and that the militants had been holed up near a Palestinian refugee camp in the center of Irbid.
Militants who refused to surrender engaged in heavy exchanges of fire with special forces that also injured five policemen, the security services statement said. “They showed heavy resistance with automatic weapons and so the security forces dealt with the situation with the necessary force.”
King Abdullah, a key Middle East ally of Western powers against Islamist militancy who has also safeguarded Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, has been among the most vocal leaders in the region in warning of threats posed by Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
The monarch, in ceremonial military attire, attended the funeral of the dead police officer along with several thousand people near the city of Zarqa.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told lawmakers that the security operation had fully achieved its goals, saying the targeted “terrorist group” had forged organizational ties with Islamic State in an attempt to destabilize Jordan.
Jordan has tried and sentenced dozens of suspected militant, mostly Jordanians returning from neighboring Syria’s civil war. Some of them were recruited by Syria’s al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front or by Islamic State insurgents.
“We live in a neighborhood that is full of terrorist organizations ... All of our effort is directed towards stopping these terrorist organizations from attacking us and undermining the security of our country,” government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani told Reuters.
Intensifying its crackdown on followers of radical Islamist groups since last year, Jordan has also arrested dozens of sympathizers who show support for such groups on social media.
International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have accused Jordan of using the crackdown on Islamist militants as an excuse for harsher curbs on freedom of speech by civil activists and dissidents.
Jordan’s military has also conducted some raids on Islamic State hideouts in Syria. Since Syria’s war erupted in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined Sunni Muslim militant groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have meanwhile fled across the border and are now living in Jordan, some in refugee camps.
Jordan has long been vigilant about the risk of militant attacks. During the U.S. occupation of neighboring Iraq, Jordan suffered bombings of Amman hotels by al Qaeda-linked militants.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Mark Heinrich