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U.S. Military Denies Iraqi Claims It Shot Down Planes, Holds POWs


Baghdad, 23 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Central Command today categorically denied Iraqi claims that Iraq had shot down several U.S. aircraft and was holding American prisoners of war. A spokesman, U.S. Marines Captain Stewart Upton, at the Qatar command headquarters of U.S. and British forces in the Persian Gulf said the claims were "more lies from the Iraqis."

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan today said that Iraq was holding U.S. prisoners of war and that it would show them on television soon.

Ramadan, speaking at a news conference in Baghdad today, claimed the American prisoners of war were taken during fighting south of Nassiriyah.

Earlier today Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Hazem Abdul-Qader said Iraqi forces had shot down four coalition planes over Baghdad and a fifth one in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. He said Iraqi forces also shot down two helicopters, one in Mosul in the north and another one in a town he named as Simaya.

Also today, an official from one of the Kurdish groups running northern Iraq says U.S. forces hit an Islamic group suspected of links to Al-Qaeda overnight, the second night running of air strikes on the group.

The official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said four explosions were heard from the area held by Ansar al-Islam.

Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam, controls a tiny pocket of territory between the town of Halabja and the Iranian border. The U.S. accuses the group of links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

An AFP correspondent says the road to Halabja was closed to journalists today.

The PUK is one of two Kurdish groups running northern Iraq outside of Baghdad's control since 1991.

Also, a British Defense Ministry spokeswoman said that missiles that Iran claims landed in the southwest of its territory were most likely fired by Iraqi forces rather than by the U.S.-British coalition,

The spokeswoman said thee allies are taking the Iranian claims very seriously. She said targetting is very carefully planned, and that given the disposition of forces, it is most likely that the incident is the result of Iraqi action. The missiles landed in southwestern Iran on 21 and 22 March.

Iran said the three rockets which fell in its southwest Khuzestan Province had been fired by U.S. jets and warned British and U.S. military forces attacking Iraq to respect its airspace.

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