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Last Updated:  Monday, 7 April, 2003, 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK
Russian envoys 'caught in crossfire'
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Putin has opposed the US-led war in Iraq
A convoy of Russian diplomatic cars shot at while leaving Baghdad was caught in crossfire between US and Iraqi forces, a Russian TV journalist travelling with the convoy has said.

Alexander Minakov, speaking from the Iraqi-Jordanian border, said the convoy was passing Iraqi positions on the edge of the city when it came under heavy fire.

He said the Iraqis were shelled by coalition forces and returned fire.

It is not clear whether the shots that hit the convoy came from US or Iraqi forces, but Russian media reported that two bullets from the stomach of one victim came from an M-16 semi-automatic assault rifle, used by US marines.

They [Americans] came within 50-70 metres of us; we came out of our cars and started waving white cloths to... ask for medical help but no-one stopped
Alexander Minakov, Russian TV journalist
The US and Iraqi ambassadors in Moscow were summoned to the foreign ministry following the incident.

The matter is expected to be raised with US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has arrived in Moscow for talks with top Russian officials on Monday.

Diplomatic sources say the visit was arranged during a phone call by President George W Bush to President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow says both sides are seeking to overcome their disagreements over Iraq but the latest incident does not augur well for Ms Rice's visit.

'Huge column'

The Russian embassy cars were on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital when they were attacked on Sunday.

There were about 25 people in the convoy, some of them journalists.

US ambassador Alexander Vershbow
Vershbow: The US Government is investigating
Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told Russian television that four or five people were injured, one seriously.

Russia's Ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, escaped with minor scratches after a bullet hit the windscreen of his vehicle, the reporter said.

The US said in a statement no coalition forces were operating in the area of the incident, which was under the control of the Iraqi Government.

But joint chiefs vice-chairman General Peter Pace later told AFP news agency that "some research" was still needed to establish the cause.

Mr Minakov said that shortly after the incident a "huge column" of coalition armour passed ahead of the convoy.

"They came within 50-70 metres [170-230 feet] of us," he said. "We came out of our cars and started waving white cloths to attract attention and ask for medical help. But no-one stopped."

Complaint

Our correspondent says the Russian embassy in Baghdad had been working with a skeleton staff, but it was decided that it had become too dangerous for them to remain in the besieged city.

A recent coalition air strike saw explosions near the embassy compound, prompting Moscow to make a formal complaint to the US.

It was announced in advance that the embassy staff would leave Baghdad on Sunday, and Russian journalists on the ground were invited to join the convoy.

Following Sunday's incident, Russia has reiterated its demand for safe passage for its diplomats, and called for the incident to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible punished.

Twelve embassy staff remained in Baghdad following the evacuation.

"It was demanded of the US and Iraqi sides that they take all necessary measures to safeguard the security of Russian citizens," said Mr Putin's spokesman.

Russia has been an outspoken opponent of the US-led war in Iraq. However, Mr Putin recently said that a US defeat would not be in Russia's interests.

The US Ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, said the US Government was investigating the incident and trying to gather information from allied commanders in the area.

He said US forces would do their best to help the diplomats leave Iraq.




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