Iraq said that a missile attack by US and British aircraft had killed civilians when the missiles hit residential areas of the southern city of Basra. "The martyrs and the injured were all children, women and old people," said Ahmed Ibrahim Hammash, the governor of Basra. "As well as 11 dead, there were 59 injured, some of them seriously. All their targets were civilian." He said that five separate areas had been hit, and a CNN television producer described widespread devastation in one Basra suburb.
The US had earlier said that its planes fired only at Iraqi military sites after challenges to the no-fly zone in southern Iraq by Iraqi aircraft. But last night, General Anthony Zinni, the head of the US Central Command, admitted that it was possible one of its missiles had caused the carnage.
"It's possible that we did have a missile that didn't perform as expected," he said in Washington. "It's in the general area of where we did conduct a strike."
He said that "we deeply regret any civilian casualties," but blamed Saddam Hussein, since he had initiated the conflict with the West.
Iraq's information minister, Humam Abdul-Khaleq Abdul-Ghafur, said that the attacks were carried out by "American and British fighters".
A British government official said last night that no British aircraft had been involved. The attack came as US aircraft mounted five strikes on northern and southern Iraq, after it claimed that Iraq launched a missile at its aircraft, intruded into the no-fly zones, and illuminated targets with its ground radar.
The conflict between London and Washington and Baghdad is escalating rapidly, with three incidents in three days in the skies over Iraq. The US is about to add aircraft to its forces in the Gulf, and the British aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is due to arrive in the Gulf today.
The US says that Iraq has mounted a large-scale operation to boost its air defences, tripling the number of surface-to-air missiles in the southern and northern no-fly zones since the end of Operation Desert Fox last month.
"What we are seeing now is an increase in frequency, intensity and co- ordination of their entire air defence system against our planes flying in both the north and the south," General Zinni said.
There have been over 70 intrusions by Iraqi aircrafts and 20 episodes involving missile firings, anti-aircraft fire and radar, he said. "This entire system is being centrally co-ordinated," he said, emphasising that despite the damage done to Iraqi facilities, the air defence system remained "incredibly robust".
He said air strikes were now targeting communications sites as well as radar stations and missile batteries, and it was not simply responding to individual infringements. "We view the entire air defence system as a threat," he said.
The upsurge in attacks came less than 24 hours after an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo failed to provide any comfort for Saddam Hussein's regime. The meeting told Iraq to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and to stop threatening its neighbours.
Iraq's foreign minister stormed out of the meeting amid signs that Iraq completely miscalculated the mood among Arab countries.