A convoy of Russian embassy diplomats came under fire today as they were evacuating from Baghdad, leaving several people injured, the Kremlin said.
It is unclear whether the convoy was hit by Anglo-American or Iraqi forces, though the US military has said that initial findings indicate that their forces were not responsible.
Russia’s ambassador to Baghdad, Vladimir Titorenko, was one of the members of the convoy that was heading for Syria, said a spokesman for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
The convoy was attacked as it made its way towards the Syrian border and casualties were reported, according to official Russian sources.
The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source travelling in the convoy as saying that the group was first fired on about 5 miles outside of Baghdad after it attempted to drive around shooting that it saw on the road ahead.
The convoy continued after the wounded were treated and stopped when it saw a column of jeeps, about 9 miles from the city, the source said. The group stopped, sending ahead one car with a flag to explain who they were.
“They started to shoot at it [the car],” the source was quoted as saying. “Thank God no one was killed. Then the jeeps left.”
Rebutting claims that American forces were responsible, US central command in Qatar released a statement saying “initial field reports reveal that no coalition forces were operating in the area of the incident”.
“Based on the reported location, the incident is believed to have taken place in territory controlled by the Iraqi regime. The inquiry into this incident continues and more details will be made available as soon as possible.”
Most staff at the Russian embassy have already left Baghdad, but a core team had remained until today, including the ambassador. Russia’s foreign ministry said that the American and Iraqi ambassadors in Moscow would be asked urgently to take all measures necessary to guarantee Russian citizens’ safety in Iraq, to investigate the circumstances of the attack and punish those responsible.
Leaving the foreign ministry, American ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the US government was investigating the incident and trying to gather information from allied commanders in the area.
“We are obviously very concerned about those who have been wounded,” he said. “We still do not know which forces were involved, we don’t know anything about the circumstances of the incident.”
Mr Vershbow confirmed that the US had been aware of the planned evacuation ahead of time and said coalition forces would do its best to expedite the evacuation. “Iraqi forces are active and there are many military exchanges going on, but we will do as much as we can to facilitate their safe departure,” he said.
The alleged attack came four days after Russia protested about American air strikes that allegedly targeted a Baghdad neighbourhood where the Russian embassy was located. Russia did not report any casualties in connection with the strikes.
It also comes as US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice arrives in Moscow for discussions on deepening Russo-American cooperation.
Russia is opposed to the war, but Mr Vladimir Putin has adopted a softer tone toward the US in recent days, saying that a US defeat would not be in Russia’s interests and pledging continued cooperation on arms control, the fight against terrorism and other issues.
Mr Putin has been informed about the incident, the Kremlin press service said.
By SARAH KARUSH, Associated Press Writer
MOSCOW – A Russian journalist who was in a convoy that came under fire while leaving Baghdad on Sunday said the vehicles were caught in a crossfire after passing Iraqi positions on the city’s outskirts.
The convoy containing the Russian ambassador to Iraq and some two dozen diplomats and journalists was passing Iraqi positions on Baghdad’s edge when the positions came under heavy fire, Rossiya correspondent Alexander Minakov said on the state-run channel. The Iraqi forces answered automatic weapons fire and the convoy was caught in the crossfire, he said.
Minkaov, speaking from Iraq’s border with Jordan, where he and several other journalists travelled after the incident, said three dipomats were wounded, including one who received a serious stomach wound. He did not say whether it appeared the shots that hit the convoy came from U.S.-led coaltion forces or Iraqi forces.
However, he said two bullets removed by Iraqi doctors from the diplomats’s stomach came from a M-16. He also said it was unclear why the coalition forces would open fire on the Iraqi positions when the Russian convoy was close by, since the United States had been aware of the evacuation plans in advance.
Minakov said one bullet hit the windshield of the vehicle Russian Ambassador Alexander Titorennko was travelling in and passed between the ambassador and the driver. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said the ambassador was not injured but had some scratches.