The state prosecutor on Thursday charged the three Jordanian nationals with "conspiring to engage in terror attacks and possession of illegal weapons with the intention of using them unlawfully".

 

It is the first such move against Hamas fighters since a crackdown in 1999, when the Amman offices of the Palestinian group were closed and its top leaders were expelled for conducting illegal activities, judicial sources say.

 

Ayman Daraghmeh, 34, Ahmad Abu Dhaib, 29, and Ahmad Abu Rabei, 27, were among 20 Hamas members arrested in April.

 

The men are believed to be of Palestinian origin. Around half of Jordan's population descended from Palestinian refugees who came to Jordan following the creation of Israel in 1948.

 

Authorities said then that Hamas's Damascus-based leadership was trying to recruit and train the men in Syria and Iran to stage possible attacks on Jordan.

 

But Jordanian officials were careful to say there was

no proof that either Damascus or Tehran condoned such activities.

 

Arms 'discovery'

 

Prosecutors said Daraghmeh, who appeared in May in televised confessions, was involved in surveillance of intelligence officials while Abu Dhaib went to the Red Sea port of Aqaba to undertake surveillance of targets used by Western tourists.

 

Amman said in April it had discovered several secret arms caches hidden by Hamas fighters in the kingdom and weapons that had been smuggled from Syria.

 

After the discovery, Jordan cancelled a planned visit by Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Palestinian foreign minister which would have been the first by a Hamas leader since 1999.

 

The Islamist Palestinian group, which won elections in January and formed its first government in March, has repeatedly denied accusations its members are involved in arms smuggling to Jordan from Syria.

 

Hamas has many supporters in Palestinian camps in Jordan, which hosts the largest number of refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza.