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Half of Iraq combat fighter force unearthed

Doha, April 19: More than 50 fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles and guns and huge amounts of ammunition have been found buried and hidden at a base in western Iraq.

The aircraft, many in good condition, included three Russian-made MiG 25s, one of the fastest fighters in the world. Some were buried, while others were concealed in buildings and under camouflage netting.

The find by Australian forces represents as much as half of Iraqi air combat power, and came as a fourth Iraqi from Americaís most-wanted list was handed over to US special forces by Kurdish fighters.

The capture of Samir Abul Aziz al-Najim, a Baath Party regional chairman for east Baghdad, was hailed by US commanders as another indication that coalition forces were making steady progress in rounding up fleeing members of Saddam Husseinís regime.

The find of 51 aircraft and ammunition was made after a force of 200 troops from the Australian SAS and 4th Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment seized the base after encountering only light resistance.

The airfield contained a tunnel system in which chemical warfare protective suits and antidotes were found. Search operations at the base, the location of which is being kept secret, were continuing yesterday.

The Iraqi air force, once one of the most formidable in the Arab world, failed to undertake a single operation during the war.

Brig. Maurie McNarn, commander of Australian forces in West Asia, said secret contacts with Iraqi air force commanders had played an important role in persuading them not to deploy their aircraft and weapons.

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