baghdad international airport taken

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    Baghdad airport attacked


    The coalition is now only miles from Baghdad city centre
    Reports are coming in that coalition forces have taken the Iraqi capital's international airport.
    A correspondent for the US network ABC said the airport had been captured by ground forces but other reports spoke only of a battle under way at the airport, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south-west of the city centre.

    For the first time artillery fire can be heard from inside the city, which is experiencing its first power blackout of the war, despite a strenuous denial by Iraq's information minister that the coalition is anywhere near the capital.

    There are unconfirmed reports that dozens of people were killed in a Baghdad suburb near the airport after it was hit by a rocket or artillery fire.


    PUSH FOR BAGHDAD



    Map: Details of advances
    Baghdad from the air
    Opposing forces

    ABC correspondent Bob Schmidt, with the 3rd Infantry Division, filed a report from what he said was the tarmac of the airport.

    "US forces encountered very little Iraqi resistance," he said.

    Military sources who spoke to a Reuters correspondent with the US 3rd Infantry gave little information on the battle at the airport, which initial reports described as an artillery attack.

    But the sources added that US troops had discovered some sort of tunnel system under the airport, with one tunnel leading all the way back to the River Tigris.

    Earlier on Thursday, Western journalists were taken to the airport by Iraqi officials where they were shown an empty terminal building.

    There was no sign of approaching US units.

    But correspondents noted rising tension in Baghdad as the power went down and the din of artillery fire reached the city.

    General Richard Myers, the top US military officer, has denied targeting the power grid.

    An attack on the airport was threatened earlier by Colonel Frank Thorp, at the US Central Command in Qatar, who said coalition forces would "engage that fight at a time of our choice".

    Correspondents say that as well as being a symbolic target, the airport would also be important if Saddam Hussein wanted to flee his country.

    It was unclear whether the Republican Guards tasked with defending the capital were returning fire.

    US officials say they have delivered serious blows to large parts of the force, but our correspondents say there are concerns that the elite soldiers have retreated to Baghdad to prepare for urban warfare.

    'Palace raid'

    US special forces have raided a palace north of Baghdad used by Saddam Hussein and his family, army spokesman US Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks said.

    He said it had been hoped that leaders of the regime would be found in the Tharthar Palace complex, located near Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, where there have been no previous reports of coalition military activity.

    "On this occasion, we did not find them. But we did find a considerable amount of information," General Brooks said, without giving any details.

    Have [the Republican Guards] just faded away or are they on the outskirts of Baghdad, waiting to take on the Americans in territory which they believe would be more favourable to them?

    The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
    With the US 3rd Infantry


    Eyewitness: Drive to Baghdad
    BBC correspondents travelling with US forces making advances from the south-west and south-east of Baghdad report different pictures.

    David Willis, with a US marine unit, says they came under heavy fire near Aziziyah about 60km south-east of Baghdad, delaying a planned push across the Tigris.

    But Gavin Hewitt with the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division says the troops faced little resistance and there were few signs of the burnt-out tanks or the bodies expected if an entire division had been destroyed.

    Coalition commanders say two of the six divisions of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard have been beaten, a claim Iraqi officials reject. Each division would have about 8,000 men and scores of tanks.

    In other developments:

    US President Bush rallies US marines at a base in North Carolina, saying "a vice is closing" on Saddam Hussein's regime

    US Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United Nations will "definitely" have a role in post-war Iraq, though its exact nature remains to be seen

    The BBC's John Simpson in northern Iraq says Kurdish troops backed by US air support have made big advances towards the city of Mosul, but are under heavy fire from the Iraqis

    US officials are investigating two separate incidents of possible "friendly fire": a Patriot missile may have downed an FA-18 Hornet plane, while ground forces may have been involved in an incident with an F-15 Strike Eagle which left a US solder dead; they say the loss of a Black Hawk helicopter over Iraq was not caused by enemy fire

    UK officials say British troops are fighting regular soldiers and militia as they try to secure the southern city of Basra


 
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