British jets target Basra breakout

BRITISH jets were tonight attacking a major column of Iraqi troops heading south out of Basra.Harriers and Tornados flying out of Kuwait were striking the armoured convoy of up to 120 vehicles.

BRITISH jets were tonight attacking a major column of Iraqi troops heading south out of Basra.

Harriers and Tornados flying out of Kuwait were striking the armoured convoy of up to 120 vehicles.

The British planes have been involved in "heavy air activity" since around 6pm British time.

An RAF source said: "A significant number of British aircraft are involved.'


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BBC Radio 4's PM programme said the details were sketchy but that it appeared the vehicles were heading towards British troops on the Al Faw peninsula.

Before tonight's breakout by the Iraqis military leaders had been watching for further signs of a popular uprising in Iraq's 1.5 million population second city.

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Yesterday it appeared the population were trying to overthrow Saddam's regime in the city but faced mortar fire and horizontal artillery fire from loyalist forces.

Today British political leaders welcomed the signs of civil unrest but the military forces on the edge of the city said there would be no hasty decision about entering the city.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed coalition troops were engaging groups of enemy forces as they tried to flee Iraq's second city.

At Prime Minister's Questions today Tony Blair said if any Iraqis wanted to rebel against the regime "we shall be ready to support them'.

Reporter Bill Neely, who is on the Al Faw peninsula, told ITV News that US war planes were also scrambled to confront the armoured column.

"I understand that about 12.30pm this afternoon a large column of between 70 and 120 vehicles, mostly armed personnel carriers and tanks, was seen leaving Basra south east along the coast road towards the Al Faw peninsula.

"This was confirmed by British radar. War planes were sent up, US war planes, and they have, as I understand it, spent the last two hours engaging and attacking those vehicles.'

He added that it was now believed that the column had split up and many vehicles had been hit.

Iraqi civilians were reported to be coming out of Basra to inform coalition forces about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's supporters and assist in directing air and artillery strikes against their own city, according to a pooled despatch by Martin Bentham, of the Sunday Telegraph.

"We are receiving a lot of information from inside the city,' one British officer told Bentham.

"Most of it is coming from Iraqi people who are fed up with the regime and who are sneaking out across the bridges to tell us what is going on in the city. It is very risky, but the fact that so many people are prepared to do this indicates the level of opposition that there is to Saddam within Basra.'

Bentham also said several leading Baath Party officials in Basra are believed to have been assassinated in recent days. British officials declined to say who had carried out the killings, or who the victims were.

The British gained a success yesterday when they seized a senior Baath party official and killed 20 Iraqi irregulars in the ensuing firefight.

One senior officer on the frontline today called the situation city "highly dangerous'.

"We would have to be damn sure that things were safe before sending British military into what could be a nightmare scenario,' he said.

Commanders believe the elements who rose yesterday may be reluctant to fully rebel as there are still bitter memories among the southern Shia who rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War, only to be brutally crushed when the Americans failed to give support.

There were reports today of people in Basra desperately searching for water and even resorting to drinking out of puddles.

But The Red Cross said today that drinking water supplies in the city had been partially reconnected.

Tamara Rifai, from the organisation's Kuwait office, said: "We are still looking into restoring it totally but we are happy with the results, I have to say. It happened this morning.'

Tom Newton Dunn, of the Daily Mirror, said the column contained up to 120 Soviet made T55 tanks and Type 59 artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers.

In a pooled despatch, Newton Dunn said the vehicles were heading south east out of Basra along roads close to the border with Iran towards ground secured by Royal Marines from 40 Commando.

From the air, US Navy F-18 Super Hornets and RAF Harrier ground attack jets dropped precision-guided munitions and cluster bombs on the Iraqi armour.

And from the ground, the column was pounded by 155mm AS90 heavy artillery from 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, and 105mm light field guns from 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery.

The officer commanding 40 Commando's battle room last night, Major Mick Green, told Newton Dunn: "We have no idea why this column has come out at the moment.

"Their intentions or motives are totally unclear but they have adopted an offensive posture and do not want to surrender, so we have attacked them.'

Major Green added: "The inexplicable thing is why they have decided to move so much armour before darkness. To move tanks around in daylight is suicide.'

By 9pm last night, at least three lead vehicles in the column had been destroyed and could be seen in flames from the air, said Newton Dunn.

The column had also left the main road and begun to scatter into open countryside, much of which has been turned into a muddy quagmire after 24 hours of torrential rain.

The troop movements could be an attempt by the Iraqis to get close and attack coalition forces under the cover of sandstorms, a military expert said tonight.

Dr Andrew Dorman, a military analyst from King's College London, told Sky News: "The Iraqis need to achieve some sort of victory here.

"They're concerned perhaps with Basra turning to support the coalition so they're therefore pushing out to try to achieve a victory to continue the propaganda war.

"With the sandstorms we've seen this is the chance that the Iraqi forces may have to get close.

"Once they are close to coalition forces it becomes problematic for the air side to engage them.'

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