The bloody ambush of Amara

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The Independent Online

Six British soldiers were killed and eight injured during two ferocious ambushes in Iraq yesterday - the biggest losses suffered by Allied forces since the end of the war. Up to 80 Iraqis were also believed to have been killed in the prolonged and fierce firefight.

Six British soldiers were killed and eight injured during two ferocious ambushes in Iraq yesterday - the biggest losses suffered by Allied forces since the end of the war. Up to 80 Iraqis were also believed to have been killed in the prolonged and fierce firefight.

The soldiers killed were members of the Royal Military Police. They were massacred inside a village police station where they had gone for a prearranged meeting. Their bodies were found by local people who alerted the British military just after 3pm.

Four-and-a-half hours earlier, in an attack at the same village - Al Majar Alkabir - a patrol of about 20 members of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment came under withering fire, injuring one soldier and destroying two Pinzgauer troop carriers.

An RAF Chinook helicopter carrying a quick reaction force team which was summoned for help also came under sustained attack, injuring seven on board, three of them seriously.

The attacks, near Amara north of Basra, were the first serious confrontation in the Shia south, controlled by the British, and Iraqis, in contrast to the Sunni north and central areas of the country, where the American occupying forces have faced constant attacks.

Even under Saddam Hussein, Amara was a notoriously dangerous area. There were frequent attacks by bandits on the Baghdad-Basra road. It was also a centre of resistance to Saddam who never entirely controlled the area.

Yesterday's attacks showed careful planning and co-ordination. The RMPs, who were working with the 16 Air Assault Brigade based in Basra, had been training local Iraqi police. Their appointment at the station was obviously known to the attackers, according to defence sources. They were said to be lightly armed and wearing berets rather than helmets when the attack took place.

The paratroopers were on a routine patrol when their troop carriers were believed to have been hit by rocket-propelled grenades and raked by semi-automatic rifles. The injured were taken to a field hospital near Basra, and two have since been transferred to a US hospital in Kuwait for "special treatment of a very serious nature".

The deaths bring the number of British forces killed since the start of the conflict to 43, and were the most lost in combat during one incident.

The Prime Minister met Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Baroness Amos, the Secretary of State for International Development, yesterday evening.

Afterwards Mr Hoon gave details of the casualties to sombre MPs. He said: "The two vehicles in which they [the paratroopers] were travelling were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine-guns and rifle fire from a large number of Iraqi gunmen.

"British troops returned fire and called for assistance. A quick reaction force including Scimitar vehicles, additional troops and a Chinook CH-47 helicopter was dispatched to provide assistance. They also came under fire. A total of eight British personnel sustained injuries - one on the ground and seven in the helicopter.

"Coalition forces have worked hard to secure Iraq in the aftermath of decisive combat operations. They will not be deflected from their efforts by the enemies of peace."

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of State for Defence, said: "Just as they were unable to stop the coalition advance in Baghdad, the death squads will not stop our commitment to create stability and security in post-war Iraq."

Mr Rumsfeld said the violence was a result of "the global war on terror," and a reminder of the Bush administration's pre-war assertions that Saddam's regime was tied to al-Qa'ida.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister was informed of this during lunchtime today and heard the news with great sadness, and it goes without saying that he believes those who died have died with honour doing a very worthwhile job, serving their country with great distinction."

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