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#11 - JRL 7140
April 10, 2003
Diplomatic convoy drove straight into gunbattle
By Galina Kouzina

It transpires that not only did the Russian diplomatic convoy that came under a hail of fire when evacuating Baghdad change its approved route but it also deliberately drove into a gunfight between US and Iraqi troops, TV Centre cameraman Alexander Terentiev admitted to Gazeta.Ru. Terentiev was among a group of journalists travelling in the convoy on Sunday and witnessed the attack on the diplomats, in which 5 people were wounded.

On Wednesday the Russian Foreign Ministry officially thanked the Iraqi authorities for the medical assistance rendered to the Russian citizens who were wounded in the attack on the diplomatic convoy on Sunday, Iraqi ambassador to Russia Abbas Khalaf told a news conference in Moscow.

Khalaf recounted that he had met with the Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov and briefed him on the situation in Iraq. The envoy noted that the Iraqi authorities had confirmed the report by the Russian ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, that the Russian convoy was attacked by the US, rather than by the Iraqi troops.

In the meantime, the accounts of the journalists who returned to Moscow from Syria on Tuesday evening have made it clear that there are some discrepancies between the official reports from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the real circumstances of the attack on the Russian convoy by US troops.

The TV Centre cameraman Alexander Terentiev has told Gazeta.Ru what actually happened on Sunday.

Even as the convoy was leaving Baghdad, the cars were brought to a halt by the Iraqis. They told the diplomats that the motorway they were supposed to take was blocked due to fighting, and advised the Russian ambassador to take a different route. ''Then we turned a bit to the right. We were in flat country, no buildings, and the usual irrigation ditches… You could see our convoy from afar,'' Terentiev told Gazeta.Ru.

Some time later the convoy approached a place where by that time a gunfight was raging. ''Some Iraqi armoured personnel-carriers were burning, ammunition started exploding. Yet, it was decided to move on. And after driving forward a bit, we found ourselves caught in crossfire,'' Terentiev said. ''There was a heavy crossfire. What we were most afraid of was the artillery starting up, and of them blasting our cars.''

At that moment, according to the accounts of the other participants of the convoy, the embassy officials and the journalists left their cars and took cover near the edge of the road. The shooting continued for over 20 minutes.

Throughout all that time the Russian diplomats tried to catch the US troops’ attention by waving white handkerchiefs and T-shirts. In particular, as Alexander Terentiev told Gazeta.Ru, ''an aide to the ambassador went towards the shooting column with a white T-shirt wrapped around his hand, but they only fired at him in response''.

Those who came under fire have no doubts that those responsible for the attack were mostly Americans. Roman Yudanov, who worked in the Russian diplomatic mission in Iraq, upon returning to Moscow from Damascus together with Terentiev, said that even though he could not see the military markings of those who fired at their convoy, ''it was clear that they were namely US troops''.

According to Terentiev, the Americans ignored their attempts to establish contact, as they sought help for their wounded. The Iraqis willingly, on the other hand, rendered all necessary assistance to the convoy, as soon as the US troops moved away further towards Baghdad: ''Virtually immediately they [the Iraqis] took us to the hospital, where we received first aid.'' The road to the hospital took some 40-45 minutes.

Thus, it transpires that the story of the attack on the Russian diplomats, indeed, began with the embassy convoy changing its route from the one initially recommended by the US, which confirms the earlier statement by the US envoy to Russia Alexander Vershbow, who on Tuesday claimed the diplomats had unexpectedly changed their route, presumably at the Iraqi officials’ advice. Some US officials alleged that the Iraqis deliberately misled the Russian convoy, in an attempt to engineer an international incident.

Judging by Terentiev’s account, given the smooth terrain the convoy could see the fight from a distance, but nonetheless, they chose against changing their route. Upon approaching the site of the clash, Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko, evidently, decided to continue moving straight ahead, resulting in the convoy being caught in the crossfire.

So far, none of Terentiev’s companions who travelled together with the diplomats’ convoy from Baghdad to Syria on Sunday confirmed his words, but it appears that the TV Centre cameraman has no grounds for making up the report, especially given that he, being a military reporter, is fully aware of the possible consequences of his public statements casting doubt on official reports and on the expediency of the decisions taken by the ambassador.

Incidentally, the Foreign Ministry’s official position concerning the circumstance of the attack on the Russian convoy has already undergone certain changes. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, when asked by Gazeta.Ru whether the convoy had changed the route approved earlier by US command, said: ''If there was any change at all, it was unsubstantial, connected with the circumstances and combat conditions.''

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