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Russian Diplomats Fired Upon in Iraq

Russian Diplomats Fired Upon in Iraq

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MOSCOW (AP) -- A convoy of Russian diplomats, including the ambassador, came under fire Sunday as the group was evacuating Baghdad and heading toward the Syrian border, the Kremlin said. Several people were wounded, the Foreign Ministry said.

U.S. Central Command said it was investigating, but that no coalition forces were operating in the area at the time.

The Russian government did not say who was believed to be behind the shooting, and the Foreign Ministry called in both the American and Iraqi ambassadors to demand assurances for Russian citizens' security and an investigation into the attack.

Most staff of the Russian Embassy in Baghdad had long ago been evacuated, but a core team, including Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko, had remained until Sunday.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of the reported strike: "I hope that's not true. It's bad luck if it happens. That's like hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, remember."

The convoy -- mostly journalists -- was first fired on about five miles outside the capital as it tried to drive around shooting spotted on the road ahead, an unnamed member of the group told the Interfax news agency.

After treating the wounded, the convoy continued, but it stopped when it saw a column of jeeps, about 9 miles from the city. One car was sent ahead with a flag to explain who they were.

"They started to shoot at it (the car)," the witness said. "Thank God no one was killed. Then the jeeps left."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said early reports indicated four or five people were wounded but none of the injuries was considered life-threatening. The ministry said 23 people were in the convoy, including several journalists.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press that after notifying the United States in advance about the evacuation, the convoy of nine or 10 vehicles had safely passed coalition ground troops before being attacked "out in more open territory" west of Baghdad.

"Somewhere after they got out past our main forces they were attacked. We don't know by whom or by how many," Pace said.

Central Command later said initial field reports indicated no coalition forces were in the area at the time, and that the shooting was believed to have occurred in Iraqi-controlled territory.

In Moscow, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the U.S. government was investigating the incident and trying to gather information from allied commanders in the area.

Vershbow said the U.S. side would do its best to expedite the evacuation. "Iraqi forces are active and there are many military exchanges going on, but we will do as much as we can to facilitate their safe departure," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov said convoy had stopped for the night in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, and was expected to set out for Syria in the morning.

Russia is opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. However, President Vladimir Putin has attempted to adopt a softer tone in recent days, saying that a U.S. defeat would not be in Russia's interests and pledging continued cooperation with the United States.

On Wednesday, Russia protested against American airstrikes that allegedly targeted a Baghdad neighborhood where the Russian Embassy was located. Russia did not report any casualties in connection with those strikes.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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