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20 said killed in US airstrikes in Iraq
Updated: 2004-09-14 08:39

US warplanes unleashed devastating airstrikes on a suspected hideout where operatives from an al-Qaida-linked group were meeting Monday, and hospital officials said 20 people died.

One strike hit an ambulance as it sped away with wounded, a hospital official said; the US military said innocent lives were spared.

Also Monday, a video posted on a Web site in the name of the militants — led by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — purportedly showed the beheading of a kidnapped Turkish truck driver. Al-Zarqawi is blamed for a string of terror attacks in Iraq, including bombings and the slayings of other hostages. Washington has a US$10 million bounty on his head.

The US military said jets carried out the strike on a site in Fallujah, where several members of a group led by al-Zarqawi were meeting. It was at least the fifth airstrike in the past week on the city, indicating the high priority US officials place on destroying al-Zarqawi's group.

Warplanes hit the city west of Baghdad after "intelligence sources reported the presence of several al-Zarqawi operatives who have been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and multinational forces," the military said in a statement.

"Intelligence reports indicated that only Zarqawi operatives and associates were at the meeting location at the time of the strike," the statement said. "Based on analysis of these reports, Iraqi Security Forces and multinational forces effectively and accurately targeted these terrorists while protecting the lives of innocent civilians."

Iraqi witnesses said a market, homes and an ambulance were hit.

"We did not hit a marketplace," said Maj. Jay Antonelli in a statement, but there was no immediate comment on the accusation that an ambulance was hit.

The military said reports indicated the strikes had achieved their aim, but did not name the operatives. "This strike further erodes the capability of the Zarqawi network and increases safety and security throughout Iraq," the military statement said.

The airstrike, which wrecked houses and hurled furniture into trees, sent a huge brown cloud over the residential al-Shurta neighborhood.

Witnesses said one explosion went off in a market as sellers were setting up their stalls, wounding several people and shattering windows. An ambulance was struck while rushing from the area, killing the paramedic driver and five wounded patients, hospital official Hamid Salaman said.

At least 20 people were killed and 29 wounded in the airstrike, said Dr. Ahmad Taher of the Fallujah General Hospital. Women and children were among the dead.

The hospital was overwhelmed with the wounded, its white sheets soiled with blood.

One woman who went to the hospital hysterically pulled at her hair. "I lost my son," she screamed between sobs. "I wish it were me."

US forces pulled out of Fallujah in April after ending a three-week siege that left hundreds dead. The U.S. Marines have not patrolled inside Fallujah since then and Sunni Muslim insurgents have strengthened their hold on the city.

A site known for posting the militant group's messages, meanwhile, released the tape of the Turkish hostage's slaying digitally dated August 17. The authenticity of the tape could not be verified, but it appeared on a Web site known for carrying statements from al-Zarqawi's group, Tawhid and Jihad.

On the tape, the victim identified himself as Durmus Kumdereli and said he was seized while transporting goods to an American military base. Kumdereli was reported kidnapped August 14.

In Ankara, Turkey, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ministry was aware of the video, but was unable to confirm Kumdereli's death.

Turkey's Anatolia news agency quoted Kumdereli's wife as saying her husband took the job to pay off debts. "They cannot be Muslims," Melahat Kumdereli, 45, was quoted as saying. "A heathen would not do what they have done."

Also Monday, Italy's foreign minister went to Kuwait in hopes of winning the release of two Italian women kidnapped in Iraq. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini appealed for a "civilized dialogue" as he stood inside Kuwait's Grand Mosque.

Frattini also consulted with Kuwait's prime minister and Foreign Ministry officials as part of efforts to free Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29. The women work for the aid group "Un Ponte Per ..." ("A Bridge To...") and were involved in school and water projects.

They were seized September 7. Although more than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq in recent months, and at least 23 have been slain, the abduction of women is rare. A female Japanese hostage was released earlier.

France's interior minister said Monday that the surge in fighting in Iraq — 78 people were killed Sunday — has complicated efforts to free two reporters held hostage, with even the French Embassy in Baghdad coming under fire.

Dominique de Villepin gave no other news about the fates of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. He reiterated that officials are working for their release and that there are signs the men are alive.

"We are doing this in an extremely difficult context, because fighting is redoubling in Iraq," he said. "It is a worrying cycle, but we want to believe that the release soon of our compatriots is possible," he added.

Italy contributed troops to the US campaign in Iraq. France strongly opposed the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein last year.

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