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(AFX-Focus) 2003-03-26 09:40 GMT: IRAQ WAR UK's Hoon confirms Iraqi uprising in Basra, Baghdad denies claims

LONDON (AFX) - Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has confirmed reports of an uprising in Basra and said he has information that the Iraqi militia have attacked their own citizens.

Speaking on BBC radio, Hoon said: "We know there have been attempts by militia to attack their own people,".

He added: "Certainly there have been disturbances, local people rising up against the regime. We know that there have been attempts by regime militia to attack those same people, their own people, to attack them with mortars, machine-gun fire, rifles,".

The defence secretary said his information comes "from various sources", but did not indicate that he had eyewitness accounts.

However, he said he is not sure if the alleged uprising is continuing.

He added that UK forces have taken "certain measures... to reduce the the number (of Iraqis) acting against their own people," referring to artillery and air strikes by UK troops.

Meanwhile, UK forces are awaiting the order to enter Basra.

A UK officer outside the key strategic city said: "There has been a civilian uprising in the north of Basra.

"We have seen a large crowd on the streets. The Iraqis are firing their own artillery at their own people,".

The residents of Basra are largely Shiite Muslims, long oppressed by President Saddam Hussein's mainly Sunni Muslim regime.

In Washington, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted that US and UK forces are not in a position to support any rebellion.

"I am very careful about encouraging people to rise up," Rumsfeld said, adding that Saddam has sent elite Republican Guard forces and ultra-loyal paramilitary forces into Basra.

Many in the city hold bitter memories of the last Gulf War in 1991, when Washington encouraged Shiites to revolt against Saddam, but then did not use military force to back them.

Many were later killed by forces loyal to the president's regime.

An Iraqi opposition spokesman, citing what he called "field reports," said civilians in Basra used axes and knives against ultra-loyal fighters from the Saddam Fedayeen volunteer militia, controlled by one of Saddam's sons.

The spokesman said there have been casualties.

Baghdad has strongly denied reports of a revolt, describing them as US "lies" aimed at demoralising the Iraqi people.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said it is too early to say how the situation will unfold.

A reporter for the Al-Jazeera television channel inside the city said he could find no evidence of a popular uprising.

The television station showed images of people queuing peacefully for gas bottles.



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