DAMASCUS (Reuters) -Syrian security forces killed five members of an Islamist militant group during a gunbattle in the northwest of the country and discovered a cache of weapons, Syria”s official SANA news agency said on Saturday.
"The anti-terror squad raided on Friday evening a hideout of a terrorist group belonging to Jund al-Sham in the Hama governorate," the official SANA news agency said, quoting an Interior Ministry source.
"A clash took place and resulted in the killing of all five members of the group."
It said Syrian forces also found an arsenal of weapons, bombs and explosives stashed in the group”s hideout in Jibrin, a village near the city of Hama, scene of an Islamist uprising in the early 1980s that was crushed on the orders of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Those Islamists were mainly affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which is banned in Syria.
"The group was about to execute terrorist actions that seek to destabilize the security and stability of society," SANA quoted the source as saying.
It did not elaborate but Syrian security sources told Reuters all of the men killed in the gunbattle that began around 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) and lasted two to three hours were Syrian.
Two Syrian security officers were wounded in the clash, which began when the militants opened fire on Syrian security forces who surrounded the isolated house they were holed up in.
"Those inside were alerted to surrender through loudspeakers but they opened fire instead," one source said, adding that the cell had rented two houses in the area but the other was empty.
Syria had been tracking the cell for a week and was checking whether it had any ties to al Qaeda, the sources said.
Some terrorism analysts have linked Jund al-Sham, Arabic for Soldiers of the Levant, to al Qaeda”s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, although there are several obscure Islamist groups operating in the region under similar names.
The United States has piled pressure on Syria to seal its long eastern desert border with Iraq to stop militants from crossing to fight U.S. forces there.
Syria says it is doing its best to control the frontier but calls on the U.S. and Iraq to do more on their side too.
Damascus has tightened the noose on suspected Islamist militants in recent months, arresting dozens and extraditing 21 to Tunisia and 12 to Saudi Arabia in July.
Syria said it killed a Tunisian militant who was among a group trying to cross the border into Lebanon the same month. Two Syrian soldiers were also killed in that clash.
In another incident weeks earlier, Syria arrested two militants in a clash in the Qasioun hills on the edge of Damascus and SANA said some members of the "terrorist" group had worked as bodyguards for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.