AQABA, Jordan – Police detained several suspects on Saturday as the hunt widened for the attackers who fired and supplied the rockets that narrowly missed a U.S. Navy ship anchored in the bay of this Red Sea port best known for beach vacations and Mideast summits.
Those arrested included Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians, according to a Jordanian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. He would not give the number of detainees.
Interior Minister Awni Yirfas said security forces found the launcher that fired the three Katyusha rockets.
Police found four more rockets when they seized the launcher in a warehouse in an industrial zone on a hillside overlooking Aqaba, state TV reported Saturday. The four rockets were defused, the report said.
The newscast did not say whether anyone had been detained.
The Gulf of Aqaba, a narrow northern extension of the Red Sea, is bordered by Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with the frontiers of the four countries touching or within view of one another.
A further outbreak of terrorism in the region would be particularly worrisome not only because of U.S. Navy targets in the area but also because Muslim extremists want to topple governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – all longtime American allies. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades – an al-Qaida-linked group that claimed responsibility for the bombings which killed at least 64 people at Sharm el-Sheik in July and 34 people at two other Egyptian resorts last October – said in an Internet statement that its fighters had fired the Katyushas, bolstering concerns that Islamic extremists had opened a new front in the region.
Authorities said the warehouse used to launch the notoriously inaccurate rockets had been rented days beforehand by four men carrying Iraqi and Egyptian identity papers.
The security official who disclosed Saturday’s arrests said an Iraqi detainee was suspected of taking part in the attack, but he cautioned against assuming the others arrested were equally involved.
A Jordanian soldier was killed and another wounded when one Katyusha flew across the bow of the USS Ashland and hit a warehouse used by Americans to store Iraq-bound goods.
Two more rockets were fired toward Israel. One fell short and hit the wall of a Jordanian military hospital. The other landed close to Israel’s Eilat airport, lightly wounding a taxi driver.
Police said Saturday they were searching for as many as six people – including one Syrian, Egyptians and Iraqis – who escaped in a vehicle with Kuwaiti license plates.
Security was tightened nationwide, including in the capital Amman, the target of several failed al-Qaida terrorist plots – including one using chemicals in April 2004. Police at roadblocks were checking identity papers. Pictures of suspects were distributed to border checkpoints.
Although the rockets missed the USS Ashland, the Navy decided to sail both of its ships out of Aqaba bay as a precaution. They had arrived earlier in the week for a military exercise with the Jordanian navy.
Jordan is trying to determine the source of the rockets, and how they were smuggled into the country, which has tight border security.
Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has thousands of Katyushas.
Doug Richardson, of the London-based Jane’s Defense Review, said the rockets have been widely copied from their original Russian design and modified by many countries, including those in eastern Europe and China.