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Staff Return to Work at U.N. Compound

August 23, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Three British soldiers were killed and one seriously wounded Saturday during a guerrilla attack in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. To the north, American forces reported killing two Iraqi Turkomen who opened fire when the U.S. soldiers arrived to put down an ethnic clash in the city of Tuz Kharmato.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, some U.N. staff returned to work in tents set up at the battered Canal Hotel compound. Investigators and soldiers searched piles of debris there for human remains and clues in the deadly suicide truck bombing Tuesday that killed at least 23 people, including the top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

In Basra, British military spokesman Capt. Hisham Halawi said the military still had no details on Saturday’s attack, but termed it a guerrilla operation. Witnesses said an unknown number of men in a pickup truck shot up the British four-wheel drive vehicle in the city center.

As of Saturday, 273 U.S. soldiers have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq, according to the military.

The British government has reported 48 deaths. Denmark’s military has reported one death.

On or since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 135 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, according to the latest military figures. Counting only combat deaths, 65 Americans and 11 Britons have died since the Bush declaration.

In Tuz Kharmato, 110 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers killed two Turkomen tribesmen and wounded two others while returning fire, said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, 4th Infantry Division spokeswoman. She said the Americans came under fire as they arrived to put down an outbreak of ethnic fighting Friday.

There were unconfirmed reports that deadly clashes between the Turkomen and Kurds erupted after minority Kurds allegedly destroyed a newly reopened Turkomen Islamic shrine. The reports claimed there were five Turkomen and three Kurds killed and eleven injured in the fighting. Aberle said it was the first outbreak of ethnic conflict in the region since May.

Iraqi Turkomans are an ethnic minority with strong ties to neighboring Turkey. They live primarily in Iraq’s north and northeast.

Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division discovered a MiG 23 fighter jet, partially buried and covered with camouflage netting, and an anti-aircraft gun north of Balad, 55 miles north of Baghdad. Aberle said they also discovered a weapons cache including six mortars, three cases of mortar rounds and 25 crates of anti-aircraft ammunition.

Aberle said U.S. troops wounded two young Iraqis Friday night when they came upon a group of 17 young men loitering at a gas station after curfew in Dhuluaiyah, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

When troops arrived, the young men began to run, she said. After soldiers fired two warning shots, 15 of the group stopped, but the two who continued to run were shot in the legs. All were detained and were being questioned.

In Baghdad, U.N. staff, international and Iraqi, worked in tents set up inside the compound beside the battered U.N. building Saturday. Staff complained that the U.S.-led coalition had done little to provide security in the area before the bombing.

``It was the coalition’s fault, because it was their job to watch the parking area where the bombing happened, ... but it seems they were incapable of that,″ said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, an Iraqi security officer working for the United Nations.

The U.S.-led coalition claims responsibility in the country in general but says it has no obligation to guard specific sites such as the U.N. headquarters and diplomatic missions. However, U.S. troops are guarding locations such as Iraqi banks and the oil ministry.

However, Maj. Mark Johnston said soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division had taken control of security at the bombed hotel, which became U.N. headquarters in Baghdad after the 1991 Gulf War.

``It’s still a dangerous site. We are still in the recovery stage,″ he said.

Iraqi employees and guards at the compound were being questioned by American authorities on the suspicion that the suicide truck bombing could have been an inside job. Many of the security guards at the hotel had been in place before the war and were linked to Saddam’s security service.

Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who is working to re-establish an Iraqi police force, said the placement of the truck bomb and the timing of Tuesday’s attack had raised suspicions.

The truck was as close as it could have been to the office of Vieira de Mello and the bomb went off as a high-level official meeting was in progress in the office.

``Would the security guards have access to that information? Would the people who work in that building for any other reason have access to it?″ Kerik told The Associated Press on Friday.

In a tearful and brief ceremony on Friday the coffin bearing Vieira de Mello’s body and draped in the U.N. flag was carried aboard a Brazilian air force plane at Baghdad International Airport. Bagpipers played ``Amazing Grace,″ and L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, wept as he consoled a sobbing U.N. employee.

The plane stopped over in Geneva, where Vieira de Mello’s wife and two children boarded the aircraft before heading for his native Brazil, airport officials in Switzerland said.

Eighty-six seriously wounded U.N. workers were being airlifted out of Iraq for medical care.

Two U.N. employees were still unaccounted for and an unknown number of people _ visitors to the building _ were still buried in the rubble. The U.N.’s official death toll stood at 20. However, independent checks by The Associated Press at area hospitals showed at least 23 died in the blast.

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Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski in Tikrit contributed to this report.

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