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Baghdad raid - many civilians killed

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Baghdad raid: 'many civilians killed'

· Bush: war far from over

· Video 'shows dead British troops'

· UN chief 'increasingly concerned'

Ashley, Davies, George Wright, Sally Bolton and agencies

Wednesday March 26, 2003

Iraq today claimed that "many, many" civilians were killed after allied bombs or missiles hit a market in Baghdad.

An Iraqi defence ministry spokesman said that at least 12 had been killed and 30 injured in the raid, which happened in a heavily-populated area in the north of the city.

The scene of the explosion, in the al-Shaab district, is 15 minutes from the centre of Baghdad. Witnesses described hearing a low-flying aircraft followed by two loud explosions.

Western journalists who were on the scene in minutes said that they had counted at least 15 bodies.

The Arabic satellite television channel al-Jazeera showed several charred cars at the scene, and at least one bloodied body was being carried away.

Hundreds of people stood in front of what appeared to be a bombed-out building, some with their firsts in the air, shouting: "There is no God but God."

In London, the prime minister's official spokesman said that Downing Street was seeking information about the Baghdad market blast, but did not, at this stage, know the cause of the explosion.

He added: "We have always accepted that there will be some very regrettable civilian casualties."

The market explosion, which took place at around 10.30am, was followed this afternoon by reports of further heavy bombing in the capital.

US general Vincent Brooks told reporters at a press briefing this afternoon that he could not be certain US-led forces were responsible.

He said: "We don't have a report that corroborates that, so I can't confirm it. We do everything physically and scientifically possible to be precise in our targeting."

The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, said that the risk of civilian casualties in Iraq will increase with aerial bombardments, but added that the risk would not slow down the military campaign.

Bush: war far from over

In a rallying visit to Central troops in Florida, the US president, George Bush, today promised that forces would be "relentless" in their mission to depose Saddam Hussein.

In a speech that generated more whoops and applause than it delivered facts, Mr Bush warned that the war in Iraq was far from over.

He said: "The path we are taking is not easy, and it may be long. Yet we know our destination. We will stay on the path mile by mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory."

Mr Bush took great pains to paint the US as the liberator of an oppressed nation, insisting that it was motivated only by altruistic reasons.

He said: "This goal of a free and peaceful Iraq unites our coalition and comes from the deepest convictions of America. The freedom you [the troops] defend is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity."

Mr Bush insisted his belief that Iraq holds weapons of mass destruction was shared by other key countries. He added: "Every nation in our coalition understands the terrible threat from weapons of mass destruction. Every nation refuses to live in fear at the mercy of terrorists and tyrants. Every nation here today shares the same resolve. We will be relentless in our pursuit."

The US president said that Saddam's Republican Guard units were now under "direct and intense attack", and claimed the Iraqi leader was losing his grip on the country.

Mr Bush also listed countries that were providing physical support in the war. They included Britain, Australia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Spain and Denmark.

Video 'shows dead British troops'

The Ministry of Defence is investigating claims that dead soldiers shown on a broadcast by Arabic satellite network al-Jazeera are British.

The footage showed two bloodied bodies in uniform, lying on their backs on a road. One appeared to have been shot in the stomach.

The soundless tape also showed two prisoners, looking sombre and uneasy. Al-Jazeera said that it had no further details, but it was believed all four men in the footage were British.

The Dubai-based channel said it obtained the video following fighting at az Zubayr, near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, over the past two days. It did not say who supplied the video.

Two British soldiers are still missing after their Land Rover was ambushed by Iraqi forces with a rocket-propelled grenade on Sunday. It happened in az Zubayr.

British officials have also confirmed that two soldiers went missing on Monday, following an attack on vehicles in the area.

There was no immediate indication that these are the men who appeared in the broadcast.

The official spokesman for the prime minister, Tony Blair, said: "It goes without saying that it is obviously being looked at with all due urgency. Once we have seen it, we will be in a better position to comment."

UN chief 'concerned'

United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan has said that he is increasingly concerned about the war in Iraq.

Asked whether he though that the Geneva Convention protecting the treatment of prisoners of war had been violated, he signalled that he believed it had.

"It is important that all parties respect it [the convention], and prisoners of war should be treated fairly and with respect, and should not be humiliated or made objects of public exhibition."

Referring to this morning's suspected US-led bombing of a market in Baghdad, Mr Annan said that the forces attacking Iraq "should respect humanitarian law and should be responsible for the civilian population."

Mr Annan was speaking on his way to a meeting with the heads of humanitarian groups.

He said that the oil for food programme would be on the agenda, and added: "I am confident members will find solutions and that they want to put the needs of the people at the centre of what we do."

The UN head also said that he was meeting Mr Blair tomorrow at a meeting that would include talks about post-war Iraq.

Blair: limited uprising in Basra

Mr Blair said today that he believed there had been a limited uprising in Iraq's second city of Basra overnight.

Shortly before he was due to fly to the US for a meeting with President Bush, Mr Blair told the Commons: "In relation to what has happened in Basra overnight, truthfully, reports are confused, but we believe there was some limited form of uprising."

Mr Blair said that, if any Iraqis wanted to rebel against the regime, "we shall be ready to support them". But he added that a major rebellion by Iraqis against Saddam may be "some way off."

Meanwhile, British commanders were today trying to establish the extent of the Iraqi opposition in Basra after last night's brief uprising against Saddam Hussein's feared security service.

While there were reports of continued skirmishing on the outskirts, military sources said that there were no immediate plans by British forces encircling Basra to enter the city.

Commanders are anxious to avoid any action that could trigger a bloodbath of civilians by security force elements loyal to Saddam.

Earlier, the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed al-Sahhaf, denied any uprising in Basra. "The situation is stable," he said. "Resistance is continuing, and we are teaching them more lessons."

Aid supplies arrive

The first sizeable relief convoy arrived in Iraq today, and was greeted by scores of desperate civilians.

Three days after president Bush had promised "massive amounts" of humanitarian aid, seven large, battered tractor trailers arrived in Safwan, near Umm Qasr, carrying food and water donated by Kuwaitis.

Television pictures showed hundreds of Iraqis in the village pouring towards the trucks and grasping for as much food as they could carry.

Meanwhile, the British naval ship Sir Galahad, carrying 211 tonnes of food and 101 tonnes of bottled water, today began the six-hour journey from the Khor Abdallah estuary to Umm Qasr.

Yesterday, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, warned the US that it is legally responsible for providing relief aid.

Iraqis have about five weeks of food left, according to estimates by the World Food Programme. About 13 million people - 60% of Iraq's 22 million population - are completely dependent on food handouts.

In a related development, drinking water supplies in Basra have been partially reconnected, the Red Cross confirmed today.

There had been fears of a major outbreak of disease following reports that the city's 1.5 million citizens were being forced to drink river water, which has been polluted by sewage from upstream.

US forces find 3,000 chemical suits

US forces found 3,000 chemical suits in a hospital in central Iraq, reinforcing American concerns that Saddam Hussein's regime was prepared to use chemical weapons, a US general said today.

"What we found at the hospital reinforces our concern," said Brigadier General Vincent Brooks. "We are well prepared to deal with the potential use of chemical weapons."

Saddam has "lost control" of south

Mr Hoon today said that Saddam Hussein's administration has lost control of southern Iraq.

As a result, the focus of British and US military strategy in Iraq was switching to giving air support to US and British troops advancing on Baghdad.

Mr Hoon said: "Although the regime has not yet collapsed - Saddam Hussein's thugs continue to resist in some areas - it has effectively lost control of southern Iraq.

Troops continue push for Baghdad

US marines continued to push north from the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya today, shelling Iraqi positions as they did so.

After finally punching through fierce Iraqi resistance from Fedayeen militia units on the Euphrates river yesterday, the forces are laying down barrages of artillery as they move towards Baghdad.

Officers said that they were prepared for more heavy fighting along the way, with intelligence reports indicating that Republican Guard units are heading south from Baghdad to engage the Marines who have been fighting around Nasiriyah.

A military source said the US Central Command now had evidence that the Iraqi regime had wired many of the bridges around Baghdad for destruction.

British soldiers named

The two soldiers killed by fire from another British tank in southern Iraq were named today as Corporal Stephen Allbutt, 35, a married father of two, and unmarried Trooper David Clarke, 19.

The men, both from central England, died on Monday night when their Challenger 2 tank, fighting Iraqi forces west of Basra, was mistakenly targeted by another British tank.

A total of 22 British servicemen are now listed as dead or missing in the Iraq war. Only two have been killed in action. British fatalities for the whole of the 1991 Gulf war totalled 24.

Friendly fire kills two UK tank crew

Turkey 'will consult US' on troop movements

Turkey's military chief today suggested that the US would be consulted on any decision to send more Turkish troops into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

The armed forces chief of general staff, Hilmi Ozkok, told a news conference: "Undertakings will be coordinated with the United States, our strategic ally still fighting a war in the region, to avoid any misunderstandings."

Last week, Turkey said that it was moving 1,500 commandos into the region to protect its border against massive numbers of refugees expected to flee the war. This was despite US fears that conflict between Turks and Kurds could undermine its military operation in Iraq.

Today's softening of the Turkish position follows a surprise announcement by the US yesterday of a proposed $8.5bn loan to protect Turkey's frail economy from the impact of war.

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