US warplanes fire on Iraqi aircraft violating southern no-fly zone

 

Hostilities erupted in the skies over Iraq again yesterday as Iraqi and US jets clashed in a "no fly" zone while President Saddam Hussein issued a fiery speech urging Arabs to rise up against their leaders."Coalition aircraft flying Operation Southern Watch fired air-to-air missiles against Iraqi aircraft flying south of the 33rd parallel in the southern no-fly zone over southern Iraq," a Pentagon official said.

The Iraqi jets were "breaching the no fly zone as they have done over the past several days," a US official said. "This was fairly aggressive. It was more aggressive than what we've seen before."US military officials said earlier that two US F-15 Eagles and two F-14 Tomcats patrolling Iraq's southern no fly zone fired about a half dozen missiles after being "engaged" by Iraqi MiG-23, MiG-25 and F-1 Mirage jets.A senior Pentagon official said it appeared that an Iraqi plane had gone down but that "most indications are against us having shot it down". An Iraqi military spokesman later confirmed the clash but denied Iraq had lost any planes.Baghdad has remained defiant over the zones with an air force chief saying Iraq had the right to defend its territory "and no-one can stop them".President Saddam kept up his criticism of other Arab nations for their failure to condemn the US and British missile strikes that pounded Iraq last month and called on Arabs to revolt against their leaders."He who lacks the basic conditions of supreme responsibility has to step down to pave the way for a better replacement supported by the people," he said in a televised speech.He "who acts in a conniving devilish manner, has also to leave office. Rather he has to be kicked down or fought out of office with swords," the president said on Qatar's Al-Jazira satellite channel.Iraq has blamed Saudi Arabia for the postponement of an Arab foreign ministers meeting aimed at discussing a Yemeni proposal for a summit on the US and British missile strikes on Iraq that ended on December 20th.Some 1,000 Palestinians demonstrated in support of Iraq yesterday in the Palestinian sector of the West Bank city of Hebron, witnesses said. The United Nations yesterday rejected Baghdad's moves to evict 14 British and American humanitarian workers from Iraq, insisting it alone would decide on the composition of UN staff. "The UN secretariat will make it clear in a letter that it was for the United Nations to determine who works for its programme in Iraq, not Iraq, and it will underline the responsibility for safe-guarding the security of all UN personnel," said the British envoy at the UN, Mr Stuart Eldon.Iraq said it feared for the safety of the 14 because of "deep popular anger" among the population following last month's US-British air strikes, which it said had damaged schools, hospitals, factories and other civilian targets.Last night, the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, held talks on Iraq with the Arab representative on the UN Security Council. The meeting in the Seychelles with the Prime Minister of Bahrain, Shaikh Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, had been planned for some time but arranged only recently, a Downing Street spokesman said.

Mr Blair will also hold talks on Iraq with the Emir of Kuwait when he visits the country at the weekend.

Meanwhile, an exiled Iraqi opposition group said yesterday that two Iraqi military officers were executed in Baghdad last month.

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tareq Aziz, yesterday said that Cairo and Riyadh gave their approval for the US-led strikes on Iraq last month in the belief it would lead to Mr Saddam's overthrow.