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Six British Soldiers Killed in S. Iraq

Six British Soldiers Killed in S. Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Attackers fired on British forces in southern Iraq on Tuesday, killing six troops and wounding eight others in the deadliest confrontation for coalition forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The six British soldiers were killed in the first of two separate attacks, British Army Capt. Dennis Abbott said. In the other attack, three soldiers were wounded seriously.

In the first attack, British troops were fired upon by Iraqis, but Abbott declined to give further details. Both attacks occurred near the southern town of Amarah.

The two ambushes were the first significant attacks on the British since major combat was declared over on May 1. While Americans have been under fire in central Iraq for weeks, the British in the south have felt secure enough to patrol the country's second-biggest city, Basra, without flak jackets or helmets.

It was the deadliest day for coalition forces since May 19, when six U.S. Marines died.

The biggest single attack on coalition forces was on March 23, when Iraqi fighters ambushed a U.S. Army maintenance unit near the southern town of Nasiriyah, killing 11 soldiers. Several soldiers were captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was later rescued by American commandos.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said he would make a statement on the attacks later Tuesday in the House of Commons.

"Our immediate priority is the informing of the next of kin and obviously all our thoughts are with those families at this time," Hoon said outside No. 10 Downing Street.

Officials at the Pentagon said insurgents were ratcheting up anti-U.S. attacks, staging 25 of them in the past day alone. American troops battled Iraqis at a checkpoint in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Tuesday, leaving three Iraqis dead and one American wounded.

The circumstances in which the British troops were killed were unclear.

British troops came under attack in another location only miles away in Amarah, a mostly Shiite city 90 miles north of Basra. Gunmen fired on a patrol, wounding one soldier.

A helicopter dispatched to assist the ground forces then came under fire as it landed and seven people on board were wounded, three of them seriously, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office.

Two British Army vehicles also were destroyed, Abbott said.

The wounded were evacuated by a separate helicopter, he said.

The wounded were receiving treatment, Abbott said from Basra, the city where British forces in Iraq are based. British forces are investigating to determine whether the two incidents are related.

Abbott did not know whether British forces fired back after being attacked but said their rules of engagement would allow them to do so.

"It's normally very quiet down here," said British Army Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, in Basra. "We've been here nearly two months now and this is the first time people have been deliberately, consciously shooting at us."

At least 18 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraqi attacks since May 1. Forty-two British troops have died -- 19 in accidents -- since coalition forces invaded March 20.

Britain has suffered no confirmed combat deaths since April 6. Since then, two British servicemen have died in accidents, another of natural causes and a fourth in an explosion still under investigation.

U.S. troops have been coming under nearly daily hit-and-run attacks in the belt of central and western Iraq known as the "Sunni Triangle," where Saddam had his strongest support.

Iraqi insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. troops in at least three towns in western Iraq. In Baghdad, guerrillas fired a grenade near the headquarters of the U.S. administration Tuesday. No injuries were reported in that attack.

Late Monday, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the mayor's office in Fallujah, the latest in a series of attacks against people believed to be cooperating with U.S. occupation forces in Iraq.

U.S. troops shot and killed one of the ambushers in Fallujah, a town 35 miles west of Baghdad, U.S. military officers said. But local residents at the scene said the man killed was not involved in the attack and was caught in the crossfire.

During the past 24 hours, the U.S. military said it had conducted 1,068 day patrols and 837 night patrols across Iraq in an effort to stem the violence.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the military was still holding Syrian border guards wounded during an American attack on a convoy believed to include leaders from Saddam Hussein's ousted regime heading toward the Syrian border.

Syria kept a strict silence about the attack, which took place a week ago but only became known in recent days. Syrian officials refused comment, and state-run television, newspapers and radio made no mention of the clash.

U.S. special operations forces, backed by warplanes, attacked the convoy last Wednesday, acting on information from a captured top aide of Saddam. The heavy fire left wrecked buildings and cars and casualties on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

An undisclosed number of people were killed and wounded in the incident, and American troops captured about 20 people, most of whom since have been released, a senior U.S. defense official said Monday.

At least five Syrian border guards were wounded, and three of them were treated by American forces. None of the Syrians in U.S. hands had been returned by Tuesday.

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson referred The Associated Press to the Syrian authorities and U.S. Central Command for comment.

"We have made it very clear to senior levels of the Syrian government the importance we attach to its cooperation with our efforts to achieve a stable, democratic government in Iraq and the apprehension of senior officials of the former Iraqi regime," the spokesperson said in Damascus.

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

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