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Fighting rages in southern Baghdad

Fighting broke out on the southern side of Baghdad with intense and lengthy artillery and automatic weapons fire early on Wednesday.

world Updated: Apr 09, 2003 10:22 IST

Fighting broke out on the southern side of Baghdad early on Wednesday, AFP reporters said, hearing intense and lengthy artillery and automatic weapons fire as US troops sought to tighten their grip on the Iraqi capital.

US forces, a day after fierce fighting in the Iraqi capital, moved deeper into the city.

The US military said Baghdad was now surrounded and that its forces were in the heart of the city.

Thousands of marines poured in from the east while fresh waves of airstrikes pounded the southern and southeastern fringes of the city.

In the centre, two US tanks moved onto the key Al-Jumhuriya bridge over the river Tigris, sparking exchanges of fire with lightly-armed Iraqis holed up on the east bank of the river.

The bridge is adjacent to the main presidential palace compound which US forces partially occupied Tuesday amid heavy clashes.

Military officials said one US marine was killed and six others wounded in firefights in the Baghdad suburbs.

Despite the Iraqi setbacks, Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf remained defiant, telling journalists US forces would surrender "or be burned in their tanks."

Hundreds of families could be seen fleeing the fighting in the capital in cars, trucks and minibuses.

The heavy fighting also took its toll on the city's hospitals, with international aid agencies warning medical supplies were critically low and hospitals were stretched to the limit because of a large number of civilian casualties.

"The situation in Baghdad is starting to become critical especially with the power cuts," said Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), adding that the cuts were affecting water supplies.

Though the US military appeared increasingly confident about the military operation, it was unsure of the success of its latest attempt to bomb Saddam and his two sons.

Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations of the Joint Staff, told a Washington press briefing the air strike on Monday had been "very, very effective," but it was not known if the targets were still alive.

"We do not have a hard and fast assessment of what individual or individuals were on site," McChrystal said.

The US military was forced onto the defensive on Tuesday after three journalists were killed in Baghdad by US fire.

Cameramen from the Reuters news agency and Spanish television station Telecinco were killed when a US tank shell hit the Palestine Hotel, where the majority of the international media is stationed.

Three Reuters staff were wounded.

The US military said the tank had fired a single round at the hotel in response to grenade and small arms fire from the building. Journalists there at the time said they had not heard any gunfire come from the building.

And a correspondent for the maverick Al-Jazeera Arabic television network died after the station's offices were hit in a separate attack that the Qatar-based network said was a deliberate US strike.

The Defense Department said the US tank crew had acted in self-defense after being fired on.

The attack brought calls from journalists groups for an investigation and put in question US assertions that US forces were taking utmost care to avoid civilian casualties.

Al-Jazeera's editor-in-chief Ibrahim Hilal urged the US and Britain to help get the channel's reporters out of Baghdad, saying "I believe that none of them is safe any more, whether in Baghdad or the rest of Iraq, even those who are with American troops."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced Tuesday that 96 US military personnel have been killed and 155 injured since the war on Iraq began March 20.

Ten others are reported missing in action, including two airmen whose F-15E jet fighter went down over Iraq on Sunday.

It was the second US warplane lost over Iraq in two days, following the announcement that an A-10 Thunderbolt strike aircraft had crashed Tuesday after apparently being hit by a surface-to-air missile over Baghdad.

The pilot was later recovered and evacuated.

In London, Iraqi opposition groups said they would meet in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Saturday to discuss the country's future.

In southern Iraq, a spokesman for British forces said "a couple more days" were needed before Iraq's second city of Basra could be declared secure, a day after Britain had said the battle for the city was largely over.

While some Basra residents defaced murals of Saddam after the British entered, thousands looted public buildings and homes of Baath party members.

British spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said that senior officers had met with an unidentified Iraqi leader to draw up an interim committee to run the city after the collapse of Saddam's Baath party in the city.

First Published: Apr 09, 2003 09:33 IST