Fallujah situation 'disastrous', charity says

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Civilians trapped in Fallujah face a humanitarian disaster unless Iraqi and American authorities allow food, water and medicine into the besieged city, aid agencies warned last night.

Civilians trapped in Fallujah face a humanitarian disaster unless Iraqi and American authorities allow food, water and medicine into the besieged city, aid agencies warned last night.

Fardous al-Ubaidi, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said her organisation had asked permission from the Iraqi government to deliver aid supplies to people in the city but the request was turned down.

"There is no water, no food, no medicine, no electricity and no fuel and when we asked for permission, we were only allowed to approach the Fallujah outskirts but had no access to Fallujah itself," Ms al-Ubaidi said. A convoy of three ambulances and one truck carrying food accompanied by 15 volunteers will make the first attempt to enter the city today, she added.

Ahmed al-Rawi, of the Red Cross, said: "Movement is impossible inside the city. The residents fear the snipers and therefore the wounded find no help and bleed to death." On the eve of the assault, the interim Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, imposed a 24-hour curfew on Fallujah and ordered roads in the area closed.

Meanwhile, British soldiers from the Black Watch were involved in a series of running battles with insurgents yesterday after going to the support of American forces in the city.

The fighting began after US Marines in the outer ring of the assault force asked the Black Watch to intercept militants retreating after a heavy exchange of fire. British Warrior armoured cars answering the call came under sustained attack from automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The militants withdrew after the Warriors fired back with their cannons and machine-guns and British helicopters gave chase. A car was eventually halted and the occupants fled after booby-trapping a cache of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. Following further gun battles a second car was seized in a village on the banks of the Euphrates. It contained devices used for suicide bombings including detonators, circuit boards and explosives.

Two men were arrested at the village after being pointed out by a cleric, but two other cars driven by insurgents escaped.

Major Alastair Aitken, of the Black Watch, said: "This was a difficult operation at an increasingly busy time, and it was a successful outcome. But we have to be ready for more situations like this."

An audiotape purportedly by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked terror suspect, urged on his fighters in Fallujah and said victory was near. The link to the tape surfaced yesterday on an internet site known as a clearinghouse for militant Muslim comment, although its authenticity has yet to be confirmed.

"As for you heroes of Islam in Fallujah, praise to your Jihad, praise to your nation, praise to your religion. [Have] one hour's patience, and then you will be see the consequences," said the speaker after identifying himself as Zarqawi.

Inside Fallujah, intense fighting erupted in the north-west of the city, just as US commanders were declaring that they had trapped resistance fighters in the southern end and were about to launch a final assault to take control.

The American forces insisted that attacks by rebels on a narrow strip of south Fallujah were isolated. Roy Meek, a Marines spokesman, said: "They can't go north because that's where we are. They can't go west because of the Euphrates river and they can't go east because we have a huge presence there. So they are cornered in the south."

A little later the American headquarters inside Fallujah came under repeated fire, leading to US tanks and armoured cars heading back into areas which US forces had claimed to be firmly under control.

Rasoul Ibrahim, a father of three, fled Fallujah on foot, arriving with his wife and children yesterday in Habbaniya, 12 miles to the west. He said families left inside Fallujah were in desperate need. "There's no water," he said. "People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying. People are eating flour because there's no food." Around 10,000 people have taken shelter in Habbaniya.

US forces say they have found Mohammed al-Joundi, the Syrian driver of two abducted French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, in Fallujah. The driver said he was being held captive by militants after being separated from the journalists, who were abducted with him in August.

Meanwhile, violence continued to spread, with US aircraft carrying out air strikes in Mosul and militants attacking US patrols near the centre of Baghdad with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The interim government extended the curfew imposed on the capital to the Shia holy city of Najaf.

An American airport worker, Dean Sadek, who is of Lebanese origin, was kidnapped in Baghdad yesterday by a group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

This pool copy dispatch was compiled under Ministry of Defence restrictions.

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