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Coalition Forces Capture Major Iraqi Port - 2003-03-22

Coalition officials in Qatar say they have taken the major port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, adding that this will allow ships to begin unloading humanitarian aid in the coming days. The announcement follows a night of heavy bombing of selected targets in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities.

British military officials say their troops now control the port of Umm Qasr, the deep water port lying the furthest into Iraq. They say control of the port is important if a refugee crisis is to be avoided in the region.

The spokesman for the British forces, Group Captain Al Lockwood, says engineers will now survey the port to see if it is able to handle deep sea-going ships. "We will need to make sure that the channels are free from mines so that we can start the flow of international humanitarian food and medical aid through the port to the people of southern Iraq," he said.

British officials say ships could begin docking in three days.

British officials Friday said up to 30 fires were blazing in the area, but a spokesman here says these have been reduced to a half dozen blazes. They also say that coalition forces continue to advance on nearby Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

Iraqi officials, however, deny the coalition claims. Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf Saturday told reporters in Baghdad that coalition troops are meeting stiff resistance and Umm Qasr has not fallen.

On Saturday two British helicopters collided in mid-air over the Gulf waters off the southern Iraqi coast. None of the seven crewmembers aboard survived.

The developments in southern Iraq follow a night of intense bomb attacks during which, officials say, 1,000 missiles struck Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities.

Group Captain Lockwood says the missiles were directed at what he calls "military targets and civilian installations" that support the government of Saddam Hussein. "Our attempts are to cut the communications with the regime to forces in the south and north, so that we isolate his command and control procedures," said Mr. Lockwood.

An officer at the British media center, Flight-Lieutenant Peter Darling, told VOA that advances in technology have made coalition bombs more accurate. "Indiscriminate bombing is really a thing of the past and we're actually concentrating on pinpoint targeting of special military-type installations and ones to do with the regime rather than ones that will affect civilians, which is why even now the electricity and the water supply to Baghdad is still operative," he said.

Officials say they hope advances in targeting will reduce the number of civilian casualties, especially in densely populated areas like Baghdad.