The statement, referring to flights enforcing the United Nations-imposed "no-fly" zones against Iraqi aircraft in the north and south of the country, could be the start of a new round of confrontation between President Saddam Hussein's regime and British and US air power. The Ministry of Defence has warned that British aircraft will retaliate if attacked. US officials were giving the same message: "Iraq knows that it should not interfere with those flights, and our pilots can act in self-defence if they feel threatened at any time," a National Security Council spokesman said in Washington.
Two RAF Tornados, on patrol as part of Operation Southern Watch on Saturday morning, reported anti-aircraft fire five miles behind them.
But this was not considered to be any threat and so no action was taken. Iraq said it had fired at Western aircraft attacking a post in the south of the country and warned that it would shoot again at any warplane over its territory.
Its version of events was dismissed by both Britain and the US. It is understood that aircraft were again patrolling yesterday, but no incidents were reported.
Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's vice-president, yesterday repeated that his government did not recognise the zones. Iraqi air defences would "do what they can to confront this violation", he said. "The farce of no-fly zones must end. The so-called no-fly zones only exist in the British and American imagination."
The US, Britain and France set up the no-fly zones under a UN mandate in 1991-92 to halt air attacks against Kurdish rebels in the north and Shia Muslim rebels in the south.
French aircraft are said to be reducing their involvement.
Britain is represented by a dozen RAF Tornado GR1 jets based in Kuwait, which took part in the four-day Operation Desert Fox bombardment of Iraq. Jaguar jets stationed at Incirlik, in Turkey, help to enforce the other zone, over northern Iraq.
Iraq has never recognised the zones and has occasionally confronted aircraft flying in the areas. The last big incident was in June. US officials said that a US F-16 fired a missile at an anti-aircraft site after Iraqi radar locked on to British planes on patrol.
Iraq denied its forces threatened the British aircraft.Reuse content