After an agonising wait, the food and water finally arrived

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The Independent Online

The crowd has been growing since the early hours, young men in brightly coloured football shirts, women in their black chadors, older men in their long jellebas.

The crowd has been growing since the early hours, young men in brightly coloured football shirts, women in their black chadors, older men in their long jellebas.

Children are running around excitedly, looking up coyly at the soldiers behind the lines of orange and white tape stretched out in front of the area from which the food and water will be handed out. By 9am there are a couple of hundred men, women and children outside the former Iraqi army compound taken over by the British troops who have moved into the town of Zubayr.

For days the troops have been struggling to gain control, tormented by small gangs of hardcore Iraqi fighters refusing to give up the struggle.

Two British soldiers have died in grenade attacks in the town and even yesterday the rebels were making their presence felt, firing mortars at the crowd that had gathered for the first attempt to hand out humanitarian supplies.

But today is different. Gone is the fog and rain of the past couple of days, in their place a blue sky and a sun to dry out the puddles and transform the mud back into the dust that blankets everything in the south of this country.

Life is going on as it has for years, the people resigned to the occasional thud of distant artillery.

At the gates of the compound, the crowd is growing impatient. The aid handout, planned for 8am a couple of hundred yards from where the mortars fell yesterday, is running late. The army can do nothing to hurry the aid convoy. No one is sure when it will arrive.

Some of the crowd begin to drift away, heads shaking. Those who stay are growing agitated, beseeching the soldiers for water. They use hand gestures to try to make themselves understood, holding up their fingers to indicate 10 days, pointing to their mouths, miming eating. They have had no food or water for 10 days, they are trying to say.

Finally, the convoy arrives – half-a-dozen military vehicles flanking two lorries stuffed with boxes of water and ration packs. Word spreads quickly and soon the crowd numbers several hundred people, held back by the thinly spaced line of troops.

Each person is given one bottle of water, but it is nowhere near enough. They want more. There is more shouting, more soldiers waving their guns about, the line breaks and people press forward.

Standing with his hands on his hips watching the soldiers dropping bottles into the sea of hands, the Commanding Officer says: "I suppose it is a start."

This is a pooled despatch from Gethin Chamberlain of 'The Scotsman'.

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