Iraqi troops fire on families fleeing Basra

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The Independent Online

The crowd was halfway across the concrete and steel span of the bridge, men, women and children screaming as they fled the machine-gun and mortar fire from Iraqi positions in Basra.

The crowd was halfway across the concrete and steel span of the bridge, men, women and children screaming as they fled the machine-gun and mortar fire from Iraqi positions in Basra.

A thousand people, maybe more, were running for their lives. A young woman fell, hit by shrapnel, as a pick-up truck broke cover and charged forward, the machine-gun mounted on its roof spewing bullets at the crowd.

On the British side, a tank lurched forward, the gunner training his sights on the truck a few hundred yards ahead.

One shot and the truck was blown apart, the three people in it killed instantly.

The crowd had made it safely across the bridge, hands raised as they ran towards the British troops, ducking as the British guns moved round to cover their escape. There were at least two such incidents on the outskirts of Iraq's second city yesterday when British forces slowly tightened their ring around the city.

Basra has been without running water and electricity since the war began. At least 3,000 people are believed to have fled the city in the past two days. Paramilitary forces loyal to Saddam Hussein within the city appear to be under orders to prevent a mass exodus – at any price.

A young woman, badly hurt, was plucked to safety by a British vehicle and driven across the lines. Others were also injured and medics rushed to tend their wounds.

Then came the clatter of rotor blades and two Lynx helicopters appeared, hovering over to the right, just visible between the concrete pillars of the bridge. They hung stationary in the air for what seemed an age, before releasing their missiles, guiding them into a target on the other side of the canal, then peeling away.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Riddell-Webster, commanding officer of the Black Watch, said the crowd had appeared at about 8am. British tanks had held them at the far bank before the decision was taken to let them cross.

"We gave permission for them to come through, but there was no firing then," he said. "The people were overjoyed when we let them through. They were blowing kisses and waving their hands in thanks.

"They wanted to get out and away. Most are heading for Zubayr and the farms around there. They had their hands up. They were scared of us as well. They don't know what is going on, but they are more scared of the Baath party."

On the far side of the bridge, 200 or more civilians who could not reach the British lines sheltered on either side of the road, terrified of moving in case they too came under fire.

Lt-Col Riddell-Webster said: "Any time we moved between our vehicles, more fire came in, hitting the vehicles. Then a pick-up with a machine-gun ... came down the road and opened fire on our troops and the civilians. One of our tanks fired back and destroyed it."

British forces also fired on Iraqi positions after paramilitaries attacked civilians leaving the city to to the north-west.

Major Lindsay MacDuff of the Black Watch said people in Basra were eager that British troops should enter the city but they were too scared of the regime to stage a rebellion. "We can shelter in our vehicles but we can't get all the civilians in. You can't get 200 people in the back of a Warrior."

This is a pooled dispatch by a correspondent of 'The Scotsman'

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