Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian authorities said Tuesday they seized over 500 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of amphetamine pills known by the brand name Captagon hidden in pasta packages in a van bound for Saudi Arabia.

An investigation was underway to determine who was behind the attempted smuggling, a statement on the official state news agency SANA said. It didn’t offer details on whether anyone has been arrested.

U.S. law enforcement officials say smuggling of the amphetamine-based drug from Syria and Lebanon has been on the rise, with over $3 billion worth of Captagon seized since February 2020.

The amount far exceeds the value of Syrian legal exports, said James Walsh, a high-level official with the State Department’s international narcotics bureau, earlier this month. He had no details on how much goes through Lebanon and how much is from Syria.

The statement carried by SANA said authorities became suspicious and stopped a van in rural Damascus carrying 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds) of the pills hidden in a shipment of pasta heading to Saudi Arabia. The smugglers had sprayed pepper over the pills to distract sniffer dogs, the statement said.

Walsh said the smuggling of amphetamines from Syria has a wide ranging impact on Europe, Africa and Asia and is obstructing efforts to resolve the country’s lengthy civil war, while contributing to deteriorating relations with Gulf states. He spoke at a conference organized by the Washington-based Atlantic Center earlier this month.

The U.S. has imposed various sanctions on Syrian government officials and businesses linked to President Bashar Assad, whom it blames for much of the country’s decade-old conflict.

Arab countries have been making moves to re-engage the Assad government after years of boycott following the war’s outbreak. Experts say a crackdown on drug smuggling would be key for Arab rapprochement with Syria.

Smuggling of Captagon has also been at the heart of a spat between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, after over 5 million pills hidden in a shipment of pomegranate from Lebanon were seized in the kingdom in April.

In retaliation, the Saudis banned Lebanese produce from going to or even transiting through the kingdom, a blow to Lebanon’s exporters.

Lebanese farmers denied the pomegranate was Lebanese, saying the shipment came from Syria.

Jordan has also seized drugs smuggled from Syria, including a shipment transported by a drone across the border in October.

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