Siege stalls aid delivery

UMM QASR, Iraq (AP) — Tonnes of desperately needed food and water reached this port city escorted by attack helicopters and a minesweeping ship, but the people it could benefit most — 1.3 million residents of nearby Basra — remained under siege Friday and under fire from Iraqi fighters.
Iraq’s second-largest city, just 30 kilometres north of the port where a British supply ship delivered water, rice, powdered milk and other humanitarian aid, was encircled by British forces.
When about 1,000 residents tried to flee Basra to find food on Friday, Iraqi paramilitary forces fired on them with mortars and machine guns, British military officials and witnesses said.
Women and children were targeted as they ran across a bridge leading out of the west side of Basra, according to a British pool report. Wounded civilians were taken to a British regimental aid facility.
Before the mortar and machine-gun fire started, more than 1,000 other Iraqis had escaped the city via the bridge.
They greeted British forces with pleas for food and water, and with cries of ‘‘Down with Saddam,’’ the pool report said.
‘‘Here perhaps are the first pieces of evidence of Iraqi people trying to break free,’’ said Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman.
‘‘And clearly the militias don’t want that. They want to keep their population in there, and they fired on them to force them back in.’’
Britain’s 7th Armoured Brigade opted to withhold fire during the attack, fearful that they might hit civilians, said Lt.-Cmdr. Emma Thomas, spokeswoman for British forces in the Persian Gulf.
Inside Basra, electricity and water supplies remain cut off. Many residents have been forced to drink contaminated water, raising the possibility of widespread cholera and diarrhea, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for ‘‘urgent measures’’ to prevent a disaster.
British forces have ringed Basra in an effort to eradicate units loyal to Saddam Hussein while clearing a path for the aid. Earlier this week, British officials reported that some civilians in Basra had turned on the Iraqi forces.
The desperate need for aid was demonstrated in the southern Iraq border town of Safwan, where two trucks carrying aid from Kuwait were quickly overrun Friday in a near riot.
Some 500 people emptied the trucks of bottled water, cheese and other food in barely 10 minutes, just as they had when a similar delivery arrived two days earlier.
The flow of humanitarian aid through the key port of Umm Qasr started with the arrival of the British supply ship Sir Galahad, which navigated mine-laden waters to deliver 100 tonnes of water and 150 tonnes of rice, lentils, cooking oil, tomato paste, chickpeas, sugar, tea and powdered milk.