British helicopter brought down in Basra, 'killing four'

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The Independent Online

At least four British servicemen are feared dead after an army helicopter was brought down, apparently by a shoulder-fired rocket, in the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday. It is one of the worst incidents to befall British troops since the 2003 invasion and would bring the UK military death toll to 108.

Immediately after the helicopter went down - on an unoccupied house in the city centre - British forces rushed to the crash site, close to the governor's office. Footage from state-run al-Iraqiya television showed orange flames reaching 20ft high and large plumes of black smoke curling into the sky. Water jets were being sprayed to try to quell the blaze. British troops were seen running through the streets and being stoned by Iraqis.

As soldiers in Warrior armoured vehicles cordoned off the area, hundreds of youths chanting "Victory to the Mehdi Army!" surrounded them, throwing rocks and then petrol bombs. The crowd also set at least one British armoured vehicle on fire, but the soldiers inside escaped unhurt. The soldiers fired weapons into the air in an effort to disperse the crowd, as smoke from burning tyres on the roadway drifted across the scene.

Shooting reportedly broke out between the British and armed militiamen, and at least four Iraqis are thought to have been killed, including a child, and 31 injured. As night fell, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed there were a number of British casualties, but would not give a figure. Nor would it say whether the helicopter was a Lynx, a Merlin or a Sea King, all of which operate in the area.

An MoD spokesman said British troops had come under attack "with a variety of weapons including guns, petrol bombs, as well as blast bombs and stones". A curfew was imposed on the city at 8pm to quell the unrest.

Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, on his first day in the job, said: "My heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed."

Military analysts saw the incident - the first downing of a UK helicopter in Iraq - as disturbing on a number of levels. Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, told Sky News: "This is one of a long line of helicopters shot down, this time, almost certainly, by shoulder-controlled missiles in Iraq. It does look as if this helicopter was on a sort of observational mission. It is very worrying."

Paul Beaver, a defence analyst, said safety devices fitted to helicopters protected them from surface-to-air missiles but not from rocket-propelled grenades.

He said the Mehdi Army - militants loyal to the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - was known to have weapons capable of bringing down a helicopter. He added: "They are well armed, well disciplined and well paid."

The BBC has reported that Basra provincial council, which runs security locally, withdrew its co-operation with the British after British newspapers published pictures of soldiers mistreating locals. The council says it will not resume liaison unless the Army reduces patrols and releases those it holds.

Britain has about 8,000 troops in the Basra area. Southern Iraq has long been much less violent than Baghdad and western Iraq. But last night, the insurgency cultivated by the 2003 invasion appears not only to be spreading but also deepening.