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Iraqi general capture claim retracted

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AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar (Reuters) - British forces have retracted a claim that they captured an Iraqi general in clashes with paramilitaries south of Iraq's second city Basra on Sunday.

"He was misidentified as a general. He was just another officer," said a British military spokesman at war headquarters in Qatar on Monday. Asked how the mistake was discovered, he said: "We just got feedback through the channel of command."

On Sunday, a British spokesman said British Royal Marine commandos captured a general and five other Iraqis and killed another senior officer in fighting around Basra that left one British soldier dead and an undetermined number wounded.

Qatar-based satellite television channel al-Jazeera later quoted Lieutenant-General Walid Hamid Tawfiq, an Iraqi field commander in the Basra region, as denying that a general had been captured and a colonel killed.

According to al-Jazeera, Tawfiq said four British soldiers were killed in the ongoing battles south of Basra.

British forces have surrounded Basra, Iraq's second city of 1.5 million people, but have not entered it, hoping it can be wrested from the control of President Saddam Hussein's government without the need to fight street by street.

Fighting has disrupted food and electricity supplies and forced many civilians to flee the city.

With operations around Basra looking like a rehearsal for the battle for Baghdad, correspondents with British Royal Marine Commandos said that fierce fighting on Sunday appeared to indicate a shift in tactics towards the city.

But Group Captain Al Lockwood, the main spokesman for British forces at Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar, told Reuters that a "softly, softly" approach was still on.

"We're obviously fully aware that there are large number of civilians there. We're treating it very carefully and we'll continue with the approach we're doing at the moment, it's showing considerable success."

He said the city had returned to calm after Sunday's fighting in which a "a large number" of Iraqi tanks were destroyed and some 30 prisoners of war were taken. Lockwood said many Iraqis were killed and one British soldier died.

"We continue our patrolling obviously to seek out the non-regular forces that have been attacking the troops and obviously keen to keep the area under reconnaissance and under patrol," Lockwood said.

"The local people from Basra are talking to us and providing us with valuable information on where these irregular troops are located and the strengths we can expect to find."

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