Iraq puts bounty on allied planes

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The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN, the Iraqi President, has offered his military a bounty for shooting down any US or British planes patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, said yesterday.

He was speaking as Iraq said the death toll from Sunday's Western air attacks on the south of the country had risen to 17 from 14, making it by far the worst incident since almost daily attacks on Iraqi anti-aircraft sites began last December. The Iraqi news agency said the number of injured was now 18. The raids on sites in the no-fly zone in southern Iraq destroyed several residential houses in the provinces of Basra, Muthanna, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Meisan.

In comments that reflect the growing concern that allied planes are at increasing risk, Mr Robertson told the House of Comments Saddam has nurtured a "relentless intention" to kill British and US air crews since major air strikes in December. Since then, Iraqi planes have violated the no- fly zones more than 190 times and made 260 other direct threats to allied planes, including attacks with missiles and antiaircraft fire, he added.

The US Central Command in Florida confirmed yesterday that it attacked two sites in southern Iraq on Sunday when planes were fired on by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns. It could not confirm any Iraqi casualties.

The US Central Command said its planes had used "precision guided munitions" to hit a missile battery near Abu Sukhayr, 200 miles south of Baghdad, and a military communications centre near al-Khidr, 150 miles south-east of the Iraqi capital.

The attacks on Iraqi anti- aircraft sites continued with little publicity while Nato was conducting the war in Kosovo.

Iraq says it does not recognise the no-fly zones imposed by the allies. The previous worst incident was in the southern port of Basra on 25 January, when allied bombs killed 11 people, most of them women and children.

The air strikes have little impact on most ordinary Iraqis or on the stability of the government, say Iraqi observers outside the country. Laith Kubba, a commentator, said that the bombing "is not a key issue for most people in Iraq. They talk much more about the chances of getting sanctions lifted."

The bombing has produced no outcry against the US in the Arab world, where Iraq continues to be isolated. The government in Baghdad may also be concerned that the air attacks - which are nominally defensive, against anti-aircraft positions - have gone on for so long that an increase in their scope would produce no international reaction.