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British soldier killed near Basra

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LONDON (Reuters) - A British soldier has been killed in action near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman says.

Reporter David Sharrock, from The Times, said in pooled copy from the Gulf the soldier was killed on Sunday after a launch carrying Royal Marines came under grenade attack and gunfire during a patrol of waterways on the Faw peninsula.

But a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said no further details of the soldier's identity or regiment, or the circumstances surrounding the death, would be released at this stage.

"We can confirm a British soldier has been killed today in action around Basra. That is all we can say at present," she said.

The death takes the number of British casualties in the 11-day conflict to 24. Five have been killed in action, 14 in accidents and five in so-called "friendly fire" incidents.

Sharrock said the ambush occurred as 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines patrolled the Faw peninsula where pockets of Iraqi resistance are still holding out.

The commandos were cruising the River Zubayr, south of the Crossing Point Bella, in two Landing Craft Vehicle Platforms (LCVP) when the second boat came under fire at a junction.

It retreated immediately but as the other craft returned to give it support, it came under sustained attack from the river bank.

Three Marines were seriously injured when the wheelhouse was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and machine gun fire. A fourth soldier was thrown into the water and a colleague jumped in to save him. They were later recovered unharmed.

A corporal managed to gain control of the craft after dragging his injured colleagues to safety behind a bulkhead and steered it out of the area. One of the injured later died from his wounds.

Later, an officer who knows the corporal told Sharrock: "There is no doubt about it, what this corporal did was outstandingly brave."

"It is a tragedy that one died but undoubtedly there would have been more fatalities without this corporal's actions."

The ambush occurred as fierce fighting continued in the satellite town of Abu al Khasib, a few miles to the southwest of Basra.

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