Russia furious over convoy shooting incident
06.04.2003 [22:36]

Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and his Iraqi counterpart, Abbas Khalaf, Sunday demanding explanations for the shooting incident near Baghdad that left at least five people wounded as a group of Russian diplomats, including the envoy, and journalists headed for Syria.

Twenty-three people, including Ambassador Vladimir Titarenko, were traveling in the convoy that came under fire twice, 8 and 15 miles from Baghdad respectively, en route to the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The motorcade left Baghdad at 10:30 a.m. Sunday and traveled along the previously agreed route, the state-controlled RTR television network reported. According to the network, Russian diplomats had duly informed U.S. military officials Saturday about their travel plans. Russia's mission in Baghdad communicated to the U.S. command the license plate information of all vehicles in the convoy. The U.S. military in turn was expected to provide the so-called "green corridor," ensuring safety of the convoy on its way toward Syria.

However, the convoy was attacked by a group of soldiers suspected to be members of a U.S. intelligence platoon that apparently knew nothing about the travel, RTR reported. At least five people -- all diplomats -- were wounded. None of the eight journalists was injured as they traveled at the back of the convoy.

U.S. Central Command in Qatar said, however, no coalition forces were operating in the area.

"Initial field reports reveal that no coalition forces were operating in the area of the incident," it said in a statement. "Based on the reported location, the incident is believed to have taken place in territory controlled by the Iraqi regime. The inquiry into this incident continues and more details will be made available as soon as possible."

Witnesses told Russian media of the events.

"In Baghdad, everything went calmly. When we left the city, we saw that there was fighting up ahead, so we decided to turn around and 8 kilometers from Baghdad, we came under fire. Several people were injured," a witness told Interfax.

"We bandaged the wounded, left a car behind and kept going. But then around 15 kilometers from Baghdad we came upon a jeep convoy," he said.

"We stopped so as not to provoke them and we sent a car ahead with a flag to show who we were, but then we came under fire again," he told Interfax.

One of the rounds apparently hit the Russian ambassador's armored limousine -- the wrecked car was left behind on the road as the convoy proceeded further on. A news report said Titarenko was among the wounded, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko dismissed it as untrue.

"I cannot rule out that the ambassador may have been scratched in the incident, but he certainly hasn't been wounded," Yakovenko told RTR.

One of the wounded has been reported in difficult condition. The convoy will continue the ride toward the border with Syria where a group of Russian Embassy officials from Damascus are waiting to meet and accompany the passengers to the Syrian capital. An ambulance is also on hand to help transfer the wounded, RTR said. A 250-mile ride from the border to Damascus will take several hours, the convoy is expected in the capital Sunday evening.

The incident may further worsen U.S.-Russian ties that have been strained by different positions on the Iraqi conflict. It may also ruin the unannounced trip of U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice who arrived in Moscow Sunday for a round of apparently secret talks on Iraq with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo and other Russian security officials, NTV reported. Later Sunday, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said that Rice would hold talks with her hosts Monday.

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