for key city leads to 'massacre of children' claim
Allies silent on claim of dozens killed by bombing
Oliver Burkeman in Washington
Monday March 24, 2003
Horrific images of Iraqi civilians reportedly killed by the coalition bombing of Basra were being shown on the Arabic news station al-Jazeera yesterday. Several Arab media outlets described the civilian deaths there as a "massacre".
Al-Jazeera's footage included an Iraqi child with the back of its head apparently blown off and wounded people covered in blood being treated on the floor of a hospital.
It apologised for showing disturbing pictures but said: "The world should know the truth and what is going on."
The Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, claimed that 77 civilians had been killed and 366 wounded in Basra, mainly by cluster bombs.
Al-Jazeera, an influential channel seen throughout the Arab world, put the number of civilian dead at 50.
The Lebanese newspaper as-Safir claimed that US missiles had been used to "assassinate the children of Basra". Other Lebanese papers made similar claims of casualties from bombing by F-16 fighter planes.
The Pentagon would not comment on the reports. At a news conference in Kuwait, Major-General Daniel Leaf of the US Air Force said the coalition forces were doing all they could to avoid such deaths, but added that he could not confirm or deny the specific Iraqi claims.
There was no official confirmation that the coalition had bombed Basra, but repeated explosions in the city's outskirts could be heard in the area.
British forces approaching Basra found a huge arsenal of Iraqi weapons including two Russian-made missiles, each 6 metres long, nine warheads, and giant anti-shipping mines, according to a reporter with 7 Armoured Brigade.
The weapons were in dozens of bunkers at a place marked on maps as the Zubayar heliport.
The British troops met heavy Iraqi resistance as they reached the suburbs of Basra. Reporters with 7 Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, said they had encountered barrages of rocket-propelled grenades and artillery, mortars and machine-gun fire.
More than 60 Iraqi soldiers were reported killed, and three Iraqi T-55 tanks were destroyed in the fighting, which began to get fierce on Saturday night.
About 70 Iraqi prisoners of war were taken.
Witnesses said a missile was launched from the city, and two mobile Scud launchers and four missiles were spotted at a school.
There was no indication last night that the missile launched was a Scud. But an Iraqi who had surrendered told British troops that the Iraqis planned a "big bombing" today.
The final stages of the ground advance on Basra, Iraq's second city and an oil production centre, were being spearheaded by British forces, while the US troops pushed northwards, arriving within 100 miles of Baghdad by yesterday afternoon.
The fierce fighting on the approach to Basra seemed to have subsided by yesterday evening.
Tanks moving into position on the edge of the city encountered abandoned Iraqi tanks, deserted barracks and white flags flying from houses in a nearby village.
Iraqi prisoners of war are reported to have told British intelligence officers that they had tried to surrender on Friday, but Iraqi secret security agents had forced them at gunpoint to return to the battle front.
from pool reports from Gethin Chamberlain, Martin Bentham and Greg Swift with
the 7 Armoured Brigade
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