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CNN crew escape gunfire in Tikrit

CNN correspondent Brent Sadler and his convoy of seven vehicles had a narrow escape on Sunday, coming under fire in Tikrit, indicating the town was still controlled by Saddam loyalists.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2003 15:16 IST

CNN correspondent Brent Sadler and his convoy of seven vehicles had a narrow escape on Sunday, coming under fire in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, indicating the town was still controlled by Saddam loyalists.

Live television footage shot by CNN had earlier shown Sadler and his team passing through the deserted and abandoned northern outskirts of Tikrit, the last major Iraqi centre not yet controlled by US forces.

But when they ran a checkpoint close to the centre, shooting erupted and his convoy sped out of the town with CNN security advisers returning fire with automatic machinegun.

Some of the convoy vehicle windows were shattered and Sadler said one of the drivers had suffered a head wound.

"It is the first time in my 25 years as a war correspondent that I have come under such close, deliberate fire," Sadler said. "That was a pretty ugly moment."

Sadler lost contact as his convoy accelerated out of the northern Iraqi town of 200,000 people, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad, but soon resumed transmission.

CNN earlier quoted local residents as saying that US-led forces were negotiating the peaceful handover of the town of 200,000 people, where statues and portraits of Saddam remain intact.

No fighters or armour were visible when Sadler and his team entered the northern approaches of Tikrit on their drive from Mosul. His footage first showed an abandoned military base around eight km (five miles) from the centre, with destroyed artillery and empty tanks.

"I've not seen one single symbol of authority in the last hour of transmission," Sadler said. "Where is everybody? Where are the soldiers? Where are the final divisions of the Republican Guard?"

After hearing explosions from the town and seeing people heading out carrying belongings, CNN's security advisers instructed Sadler's convoy to turn back.

But he was later told by civilians he stopped to speak to that there were no Saddam fighters in the town, and the CNN convoy decided to drive back into Tikrit.

"They say Saddam Hussein is finished in Tikrit," Sadler quoted one of the Iraqi drivers as saying. Sadler was the first Western journalist to attempt to get into Tikrit since the US-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20.

Abandoned APCs

Sadler had entered a huge military complex on the outskirts of Tikrit which had clearly been bombed, with the ruins of dozens of destroyed warehouses.

Scores of armoured personnel carriers, some covered in rubble, were parked around the shattered buildings or inside those warehouses which had escaped destruction.

He noted the fact no looting appeared to have taken place, suggesting Tikrit was still in the hands of Saddam loyalists.

US generals have said even though Saddam's forces had melted away after American soldiers took control of Baghdad last week, reinforcements had been seen digging in around Tikrit, the last of Saddam's bastions yet to be taken by US-led forces.

US Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, speaking at a briefing at Central Command on Saturday, said the US military remained focused on the Tikrit area.

"Tikrit is one of the areas where we still have concern that there may be presence of regime forces." Brooks said.

"We may find there's not much fight left, but some of the recent operations indicate there's still some fighting to do."

Saddam's whereabouts remain a mystery but US military leaders said last week they had control of the main road from Baghdad to Tikrit, suggesting he would be unable to bolt north.

Saddam's concentration of power in the hands of his closest family, and distrust of most people outside his own Albu Nasir tribe, meant that Tikritis formed the backbone of his most loyal military forces.

So, instead of crumbling like the rest of the country in the face of US invaders, some had suggested Tikrit - birthplace of the 12th century Muslim warrior Saladin - might provide stiffer resistance.

Some observers speculate that elements of Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction programme, which formed the central plank of Washington's case for war, but whose existence remain unproven, could be hidden in and around Tikrit.

Many experts believe the city is also a nerve centre for Iraqi security services and command-and-control infrastructures.

First Published: Apr 13, 2003 15:35 IST