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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK

World: Middle East

Iraq blamed for civilian casualties

Iraq buries its dead from what it says was a "brutal" attack

UK Defence Secretary George Robertson says allied aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones above Iraq will take whatever means necessary to defend themselves from Iraqi attack.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar: Iraq has never accepted allied patrols of its skies
Mr Robertson, speaking in the UK Parliament, said the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein had offered his troops a bounty for shooting down allied aircraft and had a "relentless intention" to kill British and American aircrews.

His comments to the House of Commons came on the same day as the funeral of 17 Iraqi civilians who the Iraqi authorities say were killed in a "brutal" attack by British and American warplanes.

Officials said most of those killed were women, children and elderly people. Another 17 were reported to have been injured.

However Mr Robertson accused Iraq of resorting to "indiscriminate" anti-aircraft fire in an effort to bring down allied planes which was itself risking the lives of Iraqi civilians on the ground.

Heavy strikes

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If confirmed, the casualties from the latest attack would be some of the heaviest since the end of the four-day-long Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign last December.

The strikes took place on Sunday in the region of Najaf in the southern air-exclusion zone.

The Americans said their planes were attacking missile and other military sites and were acting in self-defence.

A US military spokesman said the aircraft had come under fire from Iraqi surface-to-air missile bases and had "acted appropriately".

'Civlians' targeted

However an Iraqi statement said the US planes had targeted "civilian installations."

The BBC's Rob Watson: "If true, this is one of the largest civilian casualties since December"
"Our missile batteries and our ground defences fought heroically against the enemy planes, forcing them to flee to their treasonous bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait," a government spokesman is quoted by the Iraqi News Agency as saying.

Baghdad has never recognised the legitimacy of either of the air exclusion zones set up in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War.

Since the end of Operation Desert Fox there have been at least 60 days of airstrikes with more than 300 allied sorties flown over Iraq

Iraq is accused of violating the zones more than 200 times and US and UK forces say they have been shot at on more than 260 occasions.

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