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Fleeing Basra civilians 'fired on'

Basra frontline: British troops want to avoid fighting for every street in the city
Basra frontline: British troops want to avoid fighting for every street in the city

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Civilians come under fire while trying to escape from Basra
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British forces concentrate their efforts on securing Basra.
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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi militia fired machine guns and mortars at hundreds of civilians Friday when residents of Basra tried to flee over a bridge toward waiting British troops, British military officials said.

Mostly women and children tried to cross the bridge from the militia-held north to the British-held south when they were fired on, reporters were told at a military briefing.

As the residents, numbering about a thousand, came across the bridge at about 9 a.m. they were fired on by a machine gun mounted on a four-wheel drive vehicle and mortars were fired from the north side, CNN's Diana Muriel said.

Muriel is embedded with the British Army Desert Rats outside Basra.

The civilians scattered in panic and between 200 and 300 fled back to the north side, while the remainder made it safely to the south Muriel added.

Once the civilians were clear, a British tank took out the four-wheel drive vehicle, killing three Iraqis in civilian clothes that British officials believe were part of the militia controlling Basra.

Several people were injured, Muriel said, but only one of the wounded was rescued by the British tank. The young woman was taken to be treated by coalition medical corps, where she was said to have multiple fractures but was in stable condition.

Muriel said the fate of the other wounded civilians -- and the dozens who returned to the city -- was unknown.

Basra's residents have been fired on before as they attempted to flee, but Friday's incident was by far the largest incident, Muriel said.

She also reported military officials as saying most of the men who escorted the women and children over the bridge had returned to the north side by afternoon.

The British military was meeting with those who made it across the bridge to try to find out conditions in Basra.

An Iraqi prisoner of war being interrogated by British authorities said before "Operation Iraqi Freedom," Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had about 4,000 militia members in Basra, CNN Senior International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour said.

The POW told Amanpour about half the militia members deserted their posts once the U.S.-led coalition bombing started.

British soldiers continue to fend off militia members and irregular forces.

Resistance from the irregulars is so strong because they have "nowhere else to go," Britain's Chief of Staff, General Mike Jackson, told reporters in London Friday.

Their futures are pretty limited, he said, noting that if these groups do not fight they know their fate will be sealed with the downfall of the Iraqi government.

"They have nowhere else to go and they are dying in quite large numbers," Jackson said.

The evidence from Basra shows that the people living in Iraq's second-largest city are being kept under "a very, very tight rein," he added.

Originally, coalition troops were reluctant to go into Basra unless they were invited to do so by the city's civilians. Over the past week, that has changed.

British officials now say the objective is to get humanitarian food and medical supplies into the southern Iraqi city as soon as possible.

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