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A veteran sheriff’s deputy was shot and wounded Friday after encountering a group of suspected illegal immigrants who apparently had been hauling bales of marijuana along a major smuggling corridor in the Arizona desert — a violent episode that comes amid a heated national debate over immigration.

State and federal law enforcement agencies deployed helicopters and scores of officers in pursuit of the suspects after the deputy was shot with an AK-47 on Friday afternoon, and the search continued into the night. Deputy Louie Puroll, 53, had a chunk of skin torn from just above his left kidney, but the wound was not serious. He was released Friday night from Casa Grande Regional Medical Center.

The shooting was likely to add fuel to an already fiery national debate sparked last week by the signing of an Arizona law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration in the state.

Puroll was found in the desert after a frantic hourlong search, suffering from a gunshot wound, Pinal County sheriff’s Lt. Tamatha Villar said. The 15-year department veteran had been performing smuggling interdiction work before finding the bales of marijuana and encountering the five suspected illegal immigrants, two armed with rifles.

“He was out on his routine daily patrol in the area when he encountered a load of marijuana out in the desert. He obviously confronted the individuals and took fire,” Villar told The Associated Press. “I was speaking with him just a bit ago, and he’s doing fantastic.”

The deputy was alone about five miles from a rest stop along Interstate 8, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. The area is a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.

Source: Bob Christie for Yahoo! News AP

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