AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Angry over harsh living conditions in their desert tent camp in Jordan, dozens of Syrian refugees clashed with Jordanian police, hurled stones and smashed charity offices and a hospital, officials and refugees said Tuesday.
The rioting late Monday in the Zaatari camp was the worst violence since the facility opened in July near the Jordan-Syria border. About 26 policemen were injured by stones thrown by the refugees, a police official said.
A Syrian refugee in the camp, Abu Nawras, said police fired tear gas to disperse the protesters who were demanding improved conditions, better food and education for their children.
The camp, which hosts about 32,000 Syrians who fled the civil war at home, has seen smaller protests in the past weeks as refugees mostly complained about snakes and scorpions, and demanded their tents be replaced with trailers so they can better protect themselves from the scorching sun, cold nights and ubiquitous dust.
Hundreds of thousands have fled the chaos in Syria as the uprising against President Bashar Assad turned increasingly violent, with activists saying nearly 30,000 people have died since the conflict began in March 2011. Jordan alone has taken in some 200,000 Syrians — the largest number in the region — while Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have taken in the rest.
Jordan opened Zaatari only after long delaying a decision on whether to set up refugee camps, possibly to avoid angering Assad's autocratic regime by showing images at his doorstep of civilians fleeing his military onslaught.
The Jordanian police official said Monday's violence erupted when about 150 refugees started hurling stones at security officers, torched a tent and attacked the offices of a Jordanian charity responsible for the camp and a Moroccan field hospital. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, declined to say if any arrests were made.
Abu Nawras, the Syrian refugee, said many of the Zaatari residents, disillusioned with the conditions there, are now demanding to go back to Syria.
But a representative for the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, Andrew Harper, said it would not be safe for them to return home now.
"People vented their frustration in a way that is unacceptable in any environment, by throwing stones at buildings, damaging buildings, injuring a number of staff," Harper said. "It was a particularly ugly situation, which is now under control."
In response to the refugee riot, scores of Jordanians took to the streets in the nearby town of Mafraq, demanding the Syrians be sent home, Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said. The Jordanian protesters denounced what they described as "ingratitude" by the refugees to their host country.
The police official said the protesters in Mafraq burned tires and blocked a road leading to the camp before they too were dispersed by Jordanian police.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the agency was looking into the "complaints that have spurred this riot."
Associated Press writers Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.