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Last Updated:  Thursday, 3 April, 2003, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Basra battle 'is on two fronts'
Iraqi POW gives himself up to British troops in Basra
British forces have been hoping the Iraqi troops will surrender
British forces are battling on two different fronts to secure the southern Iraq city of Basra, a military spokesman said on Thursday.

UK soldiers are fighting soldiers from Iraq's armed forces as well as against the irregular militia troops.

British Army spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said the coalition forces were also striving to isolate these irregular forces from the local population.

"We must, in short, remove them from the community," he told a press conference in Kuwait.

Checkpoint

The UK forces' tactics involve the setting up of an advanced vehicle checkpoint (VCP) just outside the city to "poke a toe into Basra to see what happens".

The VCP, set up on the main traffic junction leading to the city, is the furthest forward any unit of the British Army has been, to provide a contact with civilians going in and out.

We need to know the conditions there (in the centre) before we go into Basra
Lieutenant Colonel David Paterson

Soon after it was set up, British troops came under fire from enemy rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun rounds. An Iraqi T-55 tank was seen advancing towards the frontline.

British Desert Rats swiftly responded by destroying the tank and a bunker, capturing 12 Iraqi prisoners of war.

Taking control of the city will mean eradicating the 1,000 militia troops who are reportedly still holding out in Basra.

Isolated

Battles against ordinary Iraqi forces were proving highly successful and they were being destroyed "with purpose, agility, determination, discipline and endurance", he said.

British Royal Marines use hovercrafts to patrol the Shatt al Basra river, south of Basra
Hovercrafts have been used to secure positions

Colonel Vernon said the British had no immediate plans to launch an all-out assault on the city, but they were able to stage incursions on a regular basis.

"We are in and out as we see fit. We will go in, come out, and one day we will stay."

He said military chiefs had underestimated the legacy of the failure of Western Allies to back the 1991 Basra uprising, leaving the Iraqis to rise up alone against Saddam Hussein's regime.

He stopped short of criticising that coalition's decision of 1991, but said: "The legacy created by that is making it very, very difficult for us to achieve what we want to achieve."

Commanders now hoped the one million-plus people living in the southern city would rebel once more against the central regime.

Controversial munitions

But Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf has denied that British forces were closing in on the centre.

Paramilitaries loyal to the Iraqi leader have forced the stand-off with British troops halted on the outskirts of the city.

The VCP checkpoint has been set up so that troops can gain information from civilians about what is happening in the centre of Basra, Lieutenant Colonel David Paterson, told reporters on Thursday.

It stretches across 700 yards of road and vehicles passing through have been thoroughly searched.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed reports that cluster bombs were being used by British troops but stressed this was not in and around Basra, due to safety concerns in the built-up areas.

Military commanders also insisted the highly controversial munitions have not been fired near Iraq's second city after reports British gunners in southern Iraq had used them.

Mr Hoon said on Thursday afternoon coalition troops were making "remarkable progress" as they move in on Basra.

He told the House of Commons: "Do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete."

In other developments:

  • Two plane-loads of injured British troops have arrived Edinburgh Airport

  • US Secretary of State Colin Powell has come under pressure from European Union and Nato ministers over Iraq's reconstruction.

  • Two US aircraft have been shot down over southern Iraq




  • WATCH AND LISTEN
    The BBC's Ben Brown
    "This is not yet an all out assault on Basra"



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