By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian military aircraft bombed areas close to its main crossing into Jordan on Thursday, witnesses and a group monitoring the conflict said, hours after insurgents captured the border post.
Insurgents fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's forces said they had seized the Nasib crossing in southern Syria late on Wednesday, putting most of 370-km (230-mile) border area stretching up to Israel in the hands of the rebels.
"The aim is not the crossing as such but to weaken the regime's hold in the south and to increase the areas under our control," Abu Hadi al-Aboud, head of Faloujat Houran brigade, which helped take over the crossing, said. "We dealt a blow to the last symbol of sovereignty of the regime along the border."
The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front also claimed it had captured the crossing but rival rebels denied this and accused them of looting after the crossing fell into rebel hands.
Witnesses told Reuters that Nusra fighters had entered the customs area, letting in hundreds of insurgents and civilians who looted the contents of dozens of parked Jordanian freight trucks and stole other vehicles.
The Southern Front, an alliance of rebel groups in southern Syria, said on Thursday that Nusra Front fighters had been told to leave the area and that the crossing was under their control.
Jordan closed its side of the crossing on Wednesday. A Jordanian source said on Thursday the kingdom had stepped up security and redeployed some troops to the border. Syria's state news agency quoted a military source saying that army units had regrouped in the area.
Syrian military helicopters dropped barrel bombs - crude devices filled with shrapnel - there overnight, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It collects information from sources on the ground.
Witnesses counted at least six aerial strikes that hit the Nasib crossing. Plumes of grey smoke were seen rising on the Syrian side. Two rebels were killed, they said.
"The strikes were heavy overnight but now they are sporadic," Abdullah Shudaifat, a Jordanian currency trader who lives across the border post, said.
Rebels said the Syrian army had also escalated bombing raids on several insurgent-held towns just a few miles (km) away in the southern province of Deraa.
Deraa is 90 km (55 miles) from Damascus and offers a direct route north to the Assad's seat of power in the capital and rebels say they are stepping up operations to gain more territory in the strategic southern province.
Jordan has put pressure on rebels in the past not to overrun the Nasib crossing so that the highway stayed open to trade and traffic with Damascus.
Before the uprising in Syria, billions of dollars in goods traded between Gulf countries, Turkey and Europe were transported through the crossing. Nasib, one of Syria's last official border crossings, is now crucial for importing goods into a country hit hard by Western sanctions.
(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut; Editing by Louise Ireland)