AMMAN, Jordan -- The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan was under heavy police presence and restricted access Sunday, a day after stone-throwing Syrian refugees clashed with anti-riot police, leaving one resident shot to death, according to official and media accounts.
On Saturday, Jordanian security forces used tear gas and batons to disperse thousands of angry Zaatari residents. Video and still images posted on social media depicted smashed and smoldering tents, with blood-covered refugees shouting as they fled from the chaos.
Several residents and at least 28 police officers were injured in the melee.
The United Nations said there were “reports of shots fired,” but it was not clear who opened fire. Three refugees were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and one subsequently died, the U.N. said.
Various versions circulated about what ignited the hours of unrest, which began in the afternoon.
According to a statement from the U.N. refugee agency, the incident began when a Jordanian vehicle was stopped for a “routine check” while exiting the camp and police discovered that the driver “was attempting to smuggle a Syrian refugee family out of the camp.”
The driver and the family were detained, the U.N. said, spurring “rumors” about their fate and prompting relatives and friends of the Syrian family to converge on the Jordanian police post. Residents began pelting the “outnumbered and almost surrounded” police with rocks, the U.N. said, leading to a call for reinforcements.
The dispute quickly escalated to a protest of nearly 5,000 residents, some of whom threw Molotov cocktails at security forces and set a number of shelters ablaze, according to Petra, Jordan's state news agency.
Nine tents and five trailers were burned during the protests, the U.N. said.
Some residents accused the police of harassing Syrian female volunteers returning to Zaatari. Other residents said the incident began when a Jordanian police vehicle ran over a Syrian child, though there was no confirmation of such an incident.
Andrew Harper, the top United Nations refugee official in Jordan, lamented on his Twitter account the "tragic casualties" and destruction to refugees' homes.
In comments to the Jordan Times, the government's official English daily, Harper added that there were plans to downsize Zaatari and make it a "smaller and more manageable camp” in the aftermath of Saturday’s disturbances.
Situated near the Jordanian city of Mafraq about seven miles south of the Jordanian-Syrian border, Zaatari was opened on a bare stretch of desert in July 2011 and is now home to between 80,000 and 120,000 Syrians — making it the equivalent of Jordan’s fourth-most populous city. It is also the largest camp anywhere for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.
The camp has long been the site of protests and clashes between residents and security forces as refugees complained of harsh weather conditions and a lack of basic services. But the U.N. said Saturday's incident was the first major disturbance at Zaatari in seven months.
Most residents hail from Dara, the southern Syrian province where the protests seeking to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. The ensuing conflict has left more than 100,000 people dead and sent as many as 3 million Syrians fleeing into exile, mostly to neighboring nations, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times