| Iraqis run for cover after a suicide blast in Basra. (AP)
Basra, April 21 (Reuters): Suicide bombers killed at least 68 people, 17 of them children incinerated in minibuses taking them to school, in coordinated strikes on police stations in Iraq’s mainly Shia city of Basra today.
Basra mayor Wael Abdul-Hafeez accused Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network of being behind the morning rush-hour blasts that shattered months of relative calm in the southern city. Near-simultaneous car bombs hit three police stations in Basra and two more struck a police academy in Zubair, a mainly Sunni town 25 km further south.
At least three Iraqis were killed and three British soldiers wounded, two of them seriously, in Zubair. “All four attacks seem to have been carried out by suicide bombers,” said a British defence ministry spokeswoman in Basra, which is in Britain’s sector of responsibility. The mayor told a news conference 68 people, not counting the bombers, were killed and 99 wounded. British officials said about 10 policemen were among the dead.
Two minibuses were caught in the blast at Basra’s al Saudia police station. Ali Abdul-Sadiq, a hospital official, said nine schoolgirls and their driver were killed in one. Eight kindergarten children died in the other.
A wounded Iraqi, Amin Dinar, said he had heard a huge explosion as he stood at the door of his house. “I looked around and saw my leg bleeding and my neighbour lying dead on the floor, torn apart,” he said from his hospital bed. “I saw a minibus full of children on fire.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he had no plans to send more troops to Basra in response to the blasts and foreign secretary Jack Straw said suicide attacks would not derail plans to hand sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.
The US-led occupation which followed the ousting of Saddam Hussein is due to end on June 30 with power handed to an interim Iraqi government, but preparations for the transition have been eclipsed by this month’s bloodletting and hostage-taking.
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, told a group of Iraqi scientists he did not know who was behind today’s bombs and that he expected more attacks in the run up to June 30.
“Let’s not give the terrorists a victory by being able to derail the process,” he said. US soldiers killed in action since the start of the war rose to 511, from 510 yesterday, the US department of defence website showed.
Denmark said a Danish businessman reported missing on April 11 had been found dead. An Italian hostage was killed this month by kidnappers demanding Italian troops leave Iraq.
| An officer tries to keep his dog on a leash as he controls a crowd of displaced residents in Falluja. (AFP)
Three other Italians are still held hostage. Canada said a Canadian had been abducted, part of a spate of kidnappings of civilians from more than a dozen countries. Most have been freed.
The Basra blasts sowed panic across a city which has been fairly peaceful during the US-led occupation and largely escaped this month’s surge of violence elsewhere in the country. Basra’s mayor said police had recovered the remains of one bearded bomber. “I accuse al Qaida,” he said. Interior minister Samir Sumaidy said the Basra attacks were similar to devastating suicide attacks in the Shia holy city of Karbala.
A British military spokesman said three vehicles had exploded at Basra police stations at about 0315 GMT. British officials said the Zubair blast killed three Iraqis and wounded four British soldiers, two seriously.
In Falluja, west of Baghdad, fighting violated a fragile truce hours after US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the ceasefire in the Sunni city would not last.