security forces have launched an operation to free tourists trapped inside a medieval castle in the city of Karak
, where armed men had taken shelter following a series of shoot-outs with police that killed at least nine people.
woman, three other civilians and five police officers were killed during running battles between the assailants and security forces as the militants took retreated to the city’s famous crusader-era castle.
At least 29 people were taken to hospital, some with serious injuries, the sources said.
Police in the mountainous city of Karak had earlier freed 10 people, including foreign tourists, but it appeared some were still being held in city’s famous crusader-era castlewhen the security forces stormed it.
Jordan has suffered less than many of its neighbours from recent destabilising violence in the region.
A former government minister from Karak city, Sameeh Maaytah, said there were signs Islamist militants may have been behind the attack but the government steered away from saying this.
“The operation is continuing, it has not ended and the criminals are still inside the castle … This was a group that was plotting certain operations inside Jordan,” Maaytah told pan-Arab news channel al-Hadath.
Police said the gunmen had arrived in Karak from the desert town of Qatraneh nearly 30km (18miles) northeast of Karak, a desert outpost known for smuggling, where many tribal residents are heavily armed.
As night fell, the operation to arrest the gunmen in the castle was continuing. There was no immediate claim of responsibility or suggestion from Jordanian security officials of who might be involved or why.
A police statement said that “a number of outlaws who committed ugly crimes this afternoon” had been killed and that security forces were combing the crusader castle for more gunmen.”
The day’s events, some captured dramatically on video posted to social media, began when a Jordanian police patrol was called to a report of a house fire in the town of Qatraneh, according to a statement issued by Jordan’s public security directorate.
The officers responding to the call came under fire from inside the house, the statement said, with two police officers wounded and the assailants fleeing in a car. The attack in Qatraneh, however, would turn out to be only the first in a series, with gunmen opening fire on a security patrol in the city of Karak itself, causing no injuries.
Armed men also opened fire on a police station in Karak castle, wounding members of the security forces. After that five or six armed men escaped into the sprawling tourist site, a poorly lit labyrinth partly underground.
Describing the start of the attacks, an official statement carried by the Petra state news agency said: “As soon as they reached [Qatraneh], unknown gunmen who were inside the house opened fire on the patrol, wounding a policeman, and then fled by car.”
At the same time, gunmen holed up in the castle opened fire on the Karak police station, “wounding several policemen and passersby” who were rushed to hospital, the statement added.
“Police and security forces have surrounded the castle and its vicinity and launched an operation to hunt down the gunmen,” the statement said, adding that the search was still under way. A senior security source said some people were trapped in a lower floor of the castle when the gunmen took shelter there, but denied media reports that they were being held as hostages.
“There are no hostages. But some people who were on a lower floor were afraid of leaving as the gunmen traded fire with the security forces,” said the source, who did not wish to be identified.
Video footage posted online by witnesses claiming to be in Karak showed people running in the street and police taking cover behind vehicles near a police station amid the sound of shooting.
Karak, a mountainous city of around 170,000 people, is a popular tourist destination, with the ruins of its fortified town and castle sitting 900 metres above sea level.
While Jordan has been left relatively unscathed both by the aftermath of the Arab spring and by the rise of Islamic State, a number of recent security incidents have raised concern about the kingdom.
The shootings were the latest in a series of attacks that have challenged the pro-western kingdom’s claim to be an oasis of calm in a region threatened by Islamic extremists.
The killing of the Canadian tourist could further hurt Jordan’s embattled tourism sector, which has declined sharply since the Islamic State group seized large parts of neighbouring Syria
two years ago.
Hundreds of Jordanians have fought alongside Isis militants in Iraq and Syria and several thousand more support the extremist group in the kingdom.
In November 2015, a Jordanian police captain opened fire in an international police training facility, killing two Americans and three others. The government portrayed the police captain as troubled. Others suggested the motivation was related to Isis.
In the latest incident last month three US special forces soldiers, members of a training mission in Jordan, were killed after being shot at the gates of their base in the south of the country in an incident that has not fully been explained.
Jordan is among a few Arab states that have taken part in a US
-led air campaign against Isis militants holding territory in Syria. But many Jordanians oppose their country’s involvement, saying it has caused violent deaths of fellow Muslims and raised security threats inside Jordan.
Officials worry about radical Islam’s growing profile in Jordan and support in impoverished areas for militant groups.