Thousands flee Basra in search of food and water

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The Independent Online

Thousands of tired and thirsty civilians trudged out of the besieged southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday in a desperate search for food and water.

Thousands of tired and thirsty civilians trudged out of the besieged southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday in a desperate search for food and water.

Families drove ramshackle vehicles or walked in single file down a rail track past British Army checkpoints on the western side of the city.

"It's been 'pow, pow, pow' all the time," said Maklim Mohammed as he crossed a main bridge leading south from the city, which stands at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. "I can't stand it. I'm nervous and I'm thirsty."

Basra's 1.5 million inhabitants have endured days without water. Red Cross engineers have managed amid the battles around the city partly to restore a water treatment centre that had been down since last Friday when cables carrying electricity to the plant were cut by Allied bombardment. But most homes still have no access to potable water. People have resorted to collecting water from rivers around the city, which are polluted with sewage, prompting warnings from the UN of a potential cholera epidemic. Children are at risk from diarrhoea, which is already a big killer of Iraqi children under five.

Most of those leaving yesterday were on foot without their belongings, apparently seeking shelter with friends or relatives at Zubayr, 12 miles to the south. Most were men who said they would try to return to Basra if they could find supplies.

"We are very thirsty. Our families are very thirsty," one of those leaving said. "Where can we find water? The British told us to go down the road [south]."

In Zubayr the position was only marginally better. British and American troops handed out bottled water to an agitated crowd who begged them for more. Many said they had not had water for almost 10 days.

British troops stopped and searched those leaving Basra and individuals who aroused suspicion, or were wearing military clothes, were held for questioning in pens of barbed wire.

The refugees described a city that was tense but still in the grip of an Iraqi military that had hidden large amounts of artillery and tanks in civilian and commercial areas.

One British officer said, "It wouldn't be a bad thing if the whole population left for a day or two and left the bad guys behind for us."

Compiled from pooled reports.

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