Unmanned American spy plane shot down over

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The Independent Online

An unmanned American surveillance plane was shot down over Iraq on Monday in what officials claim is further proof of President Saddam Hussein's increased efforts to destroy allied aircraft.

Defence officials said the plane ­ an RQ-1 Predator ­ failed to return from a mission over Basra. The city is said to have strong air defences. "All of our manned aircraft have been accounted for," said Major Timothy Blair, a Pentagon spokesman. He would not confirm the loss of the unmanned plane, though two defence department officials were later quoted as saying that the Predator was believed to have been brought down.

In Iraq, the official news agency quoted a military spokesman, who said the American plane had contained "hi-tech equipment". He said: "Iraqi air defences have shot an American reconnaissance plane coming from Kuwaiti territory. This was an advanced plane which the Americans used during their aggression manoeuvres on Yugoslavia. Our air defences have been modernised to confront the planes of aggression."

Officials at the Iraqi Information Ministry said they were expecting to obtain a videotape showing the wreckage of the plane and that Iraqi television would broadcast it as soon as it was received.

The incident is believed to be the first time America has lost a reconnaissance plane over Iraq. Previously, the 27ft aircraft have been shot down over the Balkans area.

Officials say that Iraq has been increasing its efforts to destroy the American and British aircraft that patrol "no-fly" zones over southern and northern Iraq as part of a policy to protect the Kurdish and Shia populations. It has come closer in recent weeks, prompting retaliatory strikes on air defence radars and communications sites.

Baghdad said such attacks were on infrastructure targets and caused civilian deaths and injuries. In July, Iraq fired a missile at an America U-2 surveillance plane, flying at high altitude over Iraq. The spy plane was not hit but the missile exploded close enough to be felt by the plane's crew.

Over the past three years, Iraq has occasionally claimed to have hit an American or British plane, but this is the first incident to be confirmed.