Russian Convoy Shot Up Near Baghdad

IRAQ: In this image from video, smoke rises over Baghdad Saturday, March 29, 2003.
A convoy evacuating the Russian ambassador and other diplomats and journalists from Iraq came under fire on Sunday, wounding at least three people amid questions over who was responsible for the incident, which came as Moscow and Washington seek to ensure relations will not be ruined by the war.

The U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors were immediately called to the Russian Foreign Ministry, but Russia did not indicate whether it believed coalition or Iraqi forces were responsible. U.S. Central Command said initial field reports indicated the incident took place in Iraqi-controlled territory and that no coalition forces were in the area.

The convoy was fired upon as it headed out of Baghdad toward the Syrian border, the Foreign Ministry said. Spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said five of the 23 people in the convoy were wounded and one was operated on, but that their injuries were not life-threatening.

A journalist who was in the convoy said it was caught in a crossfire while passing heavily armed Iraqi positions near the city's outskirts. Alexander Minakov of state-run Rossiya television said that the Iraqi positions came under heavy fire from what he said were American forces, and that the two sides also exchanged automatic weapons fire.

"We couldn't raise our heads for about half an hour," he said.

Minakov, speaking from Iraq's border with Jordan, where he and other journalists from the convoy traveled after the incident, said three diplomats were wounded, including one who received a serious stomach wound, and two others were lightly injured. He did not say whether it appeared the shots that hit the convoy came from coalition or Iraqi forces.

However, Minakov said the U.S. forces opened fire first and that it was unclear why they would fire on Iraqi positions when the Russian convoy was close by, since the United States had been aware of the Russian evacuation plans in advance. He also said bullet holes in a vehicle from the convoy matched the caliber of bullets from an American M-16.

Minakov said a bullet hit the windshield of the vehicle Ambassador Alexander Titorenko was traveling in and passed between him and the driver. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said the ambassador was not injured but had some scratches.

When the shooting let up, the Russians bandaged the injured on the spot and prepared to move the eight-vehicle convoy further when a large American armored column passed in front of them. "We came up to them waving white shirts to attract their attention," hoping for help, he said, but the column moved on.

Minakov's account differed from that of an unnamed source from the convoy who earlier described to the Interfax news agency an incident that came after the first exchange of fire. The source said a car sent ahead toward a column of jeeps with a flag to explain who was in the convoy and what it was doing was fired upon, Interfax reported.

The Foreign Ministry urgently called in the U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors and asked them to take all measures necessary to guarantee Russian citizens' safety in Iraq, to investigate the attack and punish those responsible.

Leaving the ministry, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow confirmed the United States had been aware of the planned evacuation in advance and said that it was unclear who fired on the convoy.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press the Russian convoy had safely passed coalition ground troops before it was 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.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and expressed deep regret. State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz confirmed the two discussed the incident but would not comment on what Powell said.

Yakovenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Russian diplomats had stopped for the night in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and would set out for Syria again Monday morning.

Minakov said the wounded were treated at a hospital in Fallujah, which Russian reports said was under Iraqi government control.

The incident came four days after Russia protested what it said were American airstrikes on the Baghdad neighborhood where the Russian Embassy is located. Most of the embassy staff had left earlier, but some had stayed until Sunday and a smaller group still remains, the Foreign Ministry said.

The incident also came as U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice arrived in Moscow for discussions on deepening U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Russia firmly opposes the war, but Putin has adopted a softer tone toward the United States in recent days, saying a U.S. defeat would not be in Russia's interests and pledging continued cooperation with the United States on arms control, the fight against terrorism and other issues.