US planes turn back MiGs in challenges to no fly zone

US warplanes fired at a mobile missile launcher and turned back a pair of MiGs yesterday in the only Iraqi challenges to the …

US warplanes fired at a mobile missile launcher and turned back a pair of MiGs yesterday in the only Iraqi challenges to the expansion of a "no fly" zone to Baghdad's southern suburbs, US officials said.

Anti aircraft fire and air raid sirens were heard in the Iraqi capital. But Pentagon spokesmen said there were no US aircraft in the area and they denied Iraqi reports of a third US cruise missile strike.

Iraq said US missiles hit military bases and civilian areas in the capital yesterday evening, killing a number of people.

Iraq moved half of its MiG fighters in the south to bases farther north before US fighters closed the airspace over the no fly zone, which was extended yesterday from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel, the US Defence Secretary, Mr William Perry, said in Washington.

At a news conference with the British Defence Secretary, Mr Michael Portillo, Mr Perry said the Pentagon also observed "a general pullback" of Iraqi forces which had entered a Kurdish safe haven in the north.

However, he said the 40,000 Iraqi troops in the north remained in a "dangerous position.

It was the Iraqi offensive in the north that triggered US retaliation. This drew mixed reviews from US allies, as well as questions about why the US was responding in the south to an Iraqi offensive against Kurds in the north.

Mr Perry defended the US actions as directed at "the strategic centre of Iraq."

Only US warplanes flew missions north of the 32nd parallel yesterday, said a military official at the US Central Command.

British and French warplanes, which also have been enforcing the no fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, were expected to take part in future missions to the 33rd parallel, the official said.

Mr Perry said he was "confident that the coalition is not weakened - if anything, I think the coalition is strengthened and I fully expect the French to continue participation in the coalition.

Iraq twice challenged US fighters enforcing the new boundary. An F-16 fighter, illuminated by radar from a mobile SA 8 missile launcher, fired a HARM missile at the source somewhere north of the 33rd parallel, shutting the radar down, US officials said.

In all, 44 cruise missiles were fired from B 52 bombers, a submarine and US naval surface ships in the Gulf in two waves on Tuesday and yesterday. General Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they were directed at 15 targets, including fixed surface to air missile sites, radar installations and command and control posts between the 32nd and 33rd parallels.

Residents in Baghdad heard several large explosions, as well as anti aircraft fire, but did not know what had caused them. Air raid sirens sounded.

. Iraqi secret police have arrested 1,500 people and sent them to a prison camp since Baghdad's forces captured the main Kurdish city of Arbil in northern Iraq, a spokesman for the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC) said in London yesterday.