Thousands 'are fleeing battle zones'

British forces destroy Basra tank column; 30 US troops injured in 'friendly fire' horror; US paratroops open 'second front'; Baghdad officials list 36 civilian victims
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The Independent Online

Thousands of men, women and children were today reported to have left the bridge town of Nasiriyah, while a large group was filmed walking out of Basra, crossing a bridge out of the city in a large but outwardly calm group.

Thousands of men, women and children were today reported to have left the bridge town of Nasiriyah, while a large group was filmed walking out of Basra, crossing a bridge out of the city in a large but outwardly calm group.

Both towns have been the centre of intense fighting, with UK forces repepatedly attacking military vehicles outside Basra in the south, while US forces fight to secure a bridgehead at Nasiriyah further north.

With the skies finally clear after two days of sandstorms, and good weather forecast for the next few days, US commanders have said this will enable allied forces to step up attacks.

In other developments on Day 8 of the war:

  • British forces destoyed 14 Iraqi tanks outside Basra, after earlier attacking a column of up to 20 Iraqi vehicles heading towards them outside the city;
  • Thirty US Marines were wounded, two "very seriously", in the latest 'friendly fire' incident;
  • More than 1,000 American paratroops have been dropped on an airfield in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq;
  • Officials in Baghdad said 36 people had been killed in bombing in the previous 24 hours;
  • The docking of the aid ship Sir Galahad was again delayed as more Iraqi mines were reported at Umm Qasr;
  • A Patriot missile battery shot down an Iraqi missile fired at Kuwait City.

Attacks near Basra on Iraqi columns: British tanks destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks today outside the city of Basra, military sources said. The engagement happened when the Iraqi tanks - thought to be Russian-built T55s - began moving south out of the city towards the Al Faw peninsula.

They were met by a similar number of British Challenger 2s from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.In the fighting that followed all the Iraqi tanks were destroyed. The Guards were also reported to have overrun two Iraqi infantry positions.

One tank officer said of the contest between the T55 and Challenger 2: "It's like the bicycle against the motor car."

The Commander of UK forces reported that British forces had earlier destroyed a column of about 20 Iraqi vehicles that tried to slip out of Basra and attack British troops. Iraqi forces have made at least three attempts to break out of Basra since Tuesday, according to British military officials.

Air Marshall Brian Burridge said that loyalist Iraqi forces were threatening regular army troops that were trying to desert. He said British forces had also attacked 11 Iraqi mortar firing positions and some T-55 tanks during fighting around the city.

US Marines injured in fresh 'friendly fire' incident: Thirty US troops were wounded, two "very seriously", in heavy fighting in central Iraq, it was reported today.

The ITV correspondent James Mates, on the phone to GMTV from Nasiriyah, said: "It happened late last night. There was a very heavy firefight going on, which we could hear from our position.

"A small group of Iraqis had gone effectively round the side of the American advance and started attacking the less well defended logistics and command positions in the rear.

"Two American forces were detailed to deal with this threat, they both moved towards it, but ended up fighting each other, very heavy fire coming in from light armoured vehicles on the one side, and a group of troops on the other, and the ones not in the armoured vehicles coming off much the worse.

"We have 30 wounded, two very seriously, though they are both expected to survive, but it has badly hit this battalion that we are with," he said.

US paratroops flown in to Northern Iraq: More than 1,000 American paratroops have been dropped on an airfield to secure the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq.

Soldiers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade dropped into an airfield which will be used to bring in supplies and support personnel, a senior Pentagon official said.

Giving cover for the deployment, US warplanes struck Iraqi ground troops and bunkers in northern Iraq. At dawn today, American planes pounded forward Iraqi positions in the hills east of the key oil city of Kirkuk.

The airdrop was an entry for ground troops into a region where until now only small groups of US Special Forces were operating, working with Kurdish fighters in preparation for a northern front against Saddam's forces.

The US announced it was flying 30,000 more troops to the Gulf, equipped with 200 Abrams main battle tanks. They include the 4th Infantry Division, which is said to use America's newest battlefield technology, including advanced digital communications equipment and weaponry.

'More civilian victims' in Baghdad bombing: 36 people have been killed in Baghdad in the last 24 hours and allies have aimed at civilian targets, an Iraqi spokesman said this morning.

Heavy bombing continued in Baghdad overnight despite at least 14 civilians being killed yesterday when a busy marketplace was struck by missiles. The spokesman accused the coalition forces of killing at least two ambulance drivers and targeting medical centres.

He said: "What is happening to the children and women and other social groups are the same as the soldiers on the front line. There is no discrimination, they are bombarding all these groups regardless of their situation."

There were 30 reported explosions during four separate raids. At least one major explosion was reported in the heart of the city centre. Fresh blasts were reported in Baghdad this morning.

Humanitarian aid delays: British officials postponed the start of a sea-borne aid operation today after discovering more unexploded Iraqi mines in the shipping channel leading to the secured southern port of Umm Qasr.

Two mines were located and destroyed yesterday, but the discovery of further mines leaves several ships unable to reach the port. These include the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad, which is carrying 200 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

The attempt to deliver a first convoy of US and British food and water to Iraqi civilians on Wednesday was today described by the Red Crescent as a "disaster" after much of the aid was hijacked by young, healthy Iraqis. The intended destination for the five lorries was the remote farms near the Iraq-Kuwait border, where many women and children are in desperate need of aid.

Kuwait City: A Patriot missile shot down a missile fired at Kuwait from southern Iraq today, civilian defence officials said. No debris was reported to have fallen on residential areas.