Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Violence in Iraq spreads to Baghdad as ground fire downs US attack helicopter

FRAGILE PEACE With fighting breaking out on the outskirts of the capital, a ceasefire in hot-spot Fallujah was holding amid talks with rebels to have it extended


Gunmen shot down a US attack helicopter during fighting in western Baghdad yesterday, and the fate of its two-member crew was unknown. Insurgents and Marines called a ceasefire in the besieged city of Fallujah, though the fragile peace was shaken by a gun battle that wounded two Americans.

A pall of black smoke rose on Baghdad's western edge where a military spokesman said the AH-64 Apache helicopter was downed by ground fire in the morning. More helicopters circled overhead, while US troops closed off the main highway -- a key supply route into the capital.

"The condition of the [Apache's] crew is unknown," the spokesman said.

Heavy firing was heard and tanks and Humvees moved into the area, near the suburb of Abu Ghraib, where masked gunmen have wreaked havoc for the past three days, attacking fuel convoys and blowing up tanker trucks. Insurgents kidnapped an American civilian and killed a US soldier in the area on Friday.

The captors of the American hostage -- Thomas Hammil, a Mississippi native who works for a US contractor in Iraq -- threatened to kill and burn him unless US troops ended their assault on Fallujah by 6am yesterday. The deadline passed with no word on Hammil's fate.

Video footage aired on Arabic television yesterday showed the bodies of two dead Westerners -- apparently a pair of Americans seen by APTN cameramen on Friday being dragged out of a car on the Abu Ghraib highway, in a different incident from Hammil's kidnapping.

The cameramen fled the scene on Friday and the fate of the two men was unknown. But one of the bodies in yesterday's footage resembled one of the Americans taken out of the car.

The new footage showed the bodies surrounded by gunmen, who are heard on the tape saying the two are American intelligence officers.

One of the bodies lay sprawled on the pavement, his face bloodied and his right leg drenched in blood.

The other body had been rolled face down, his shirt lifted to reveal a bullet hole in his back. Both wore dark t-shirts and khaki pants often worn by private contractors.

Meanwhile, Fallujah -- 60km west of Baghdad -- saw occasional sniper fire, but was still the quietest it has been all week after Sunni insurgents and Marines agreed to a ceasefire starting early yesterday and due to last until the evening amid talks between Iraqi officials on how to end the violence.

Hundreds of US reinforcements moved in place on the city edge, joining 1,200 Marines and nearly 900 Iraqi security forces already involved in the fighting. And Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt warned that an all-out assault could resume if talks don't produce results.

The most serious break in yesterday's peace came when a sniper opened fire on a US patrol, wounding two Marines, commanders said. In the ensuing gun battle, at least one insurgent was killed. After the firefight, the city was largely quiet again.

"They are not playing by the rules, sir," Marine Captain Jason Smith radioed to his commander after taking fire in another incident in which the troops did not fire back.

US forces have been instructed not to launch offensive attacks on the rebels, said Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which is deployed in the city's south.

A guerrilla commander in Fallujah's al-Jolan neighborhood told Al-Jazeera television that his fighters would abide by the truce.

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