A British military spokesman says Iraqi paramilitaries in Basra, Iraq's second biggest city, have fired mortars and machine guns at about 2,000 civilians trying to flee the beleaguered city.
Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt said preliminary reports from British commanders near Basra indicate that groups of Iraqi militiamen fired at people trying to leave the city. "There is an attempt by some Iraqi civilians to break out of Basra in the north and west of the city. We've also heard, I believe, that Iraqi paramilitaries have fired on the crowd to dissuade them from fleeing, and that casualties have been inflicted," he said.
Colonel McCourt says he does not have information on the number of casualties. But he says British forces are trying to neutralize the militiamen, evacuate the casualties and treat the wounded.
Another British spokesman quotes a commander in the field as saying it was difficult for British forces to return fire immediately, because they were unable to locate the exact position of the attackers.
For several days now, British officers around Basra have reported incidents of Iraqi paramilitary forces firing at civilians in the city and its outskirts.