- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. warplanes unleashed devastating air strikes on a suspected hide-out where operatives from an al Qaeda-linked group were meeting yesterday, and hospital officials said 20 persons died.

One strike hit an ambulance as it sped away with wounded, a hospital official said. The U.S. military said innocent lives were spared.

Also yesterday, a video posted on a Web site in the name of the militants — led by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi — purportedly showed the beheading of a kidnapped Turkish truck driver. Zarqawi is blamed for a string of attacks in Iraq, including bombings and the slayings of other hostages. Washington has a $10 million bounty on him.

The U.S. military said jets carried out a strike on a site in Fallujah, where several members of a group led by Zarqawi were meeting. It was at least the fifth air strike in the past week on the city, indicating the high priority U.S. officials place on destroying Zarqawi’s group.

Warplanes hit the city west of Baghdad after “intelligence sources reported the presence of several Zarqawi operatives who have been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and multinational forces,” the military said.

Iraqi witnesses said a market, homes and an ambulance were hit.

“We did not hit a marketplace,” Maj. Jay Antonelli said, but there was no immediate comment on the accusation that an ambulance was hit.

The military said reports indicated the strikes had achieved their aim, but did not name the operatives. “This strike further erodes the capability of the Zarqawi network and increases safety and security throughout Iraq,” the military statement said.

The air strike, which wrecked houses and hurled furniture into trees, sent a huge brown cloud over the residential al-Shurta neighborhood.

Witnesses said one explosion went off in a market as sellers were setting up their stalls, wounding several people and shattering windows. An ambulance was struck while rushing from the area, killing the paramedic driver and five wounded patients, hospital official Hamid Salaman said.

U.S. forces pulled out of Fallujah in April after ending a three-week siege that left hundreds dead. U.S. Marines have not patrolled inside Fallujah since then, and Sunni Muslim insurgents have strengthened their hold on the city.

A Web site known for posting the militant group’s messages, meanwhile, released the tape of the Turkish hostage’s slaying digitally dated Aug. 17. The authenticity of the tape could not be verified, but it appeared on a Web site known for carrying statements from Zarqawi’s group, Tawhid and Jihad.

On the tape, the victim identified himself as Durmus Kumdereli and said he was seized while transporting goods to an American military base. Mr. Kumdereli was reported kidnapped Aug. 14.

Also yesterday, Italy’s foreign minister went to Kuwait in hopes of winning the release of two Italian women kidnapped in Iraq. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini consulted with Kuwait’s prime minister and Foreign Ministry officials as part of efforts to free Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29.

France said yesterday that the surge in fighting in Iraq — 78 persons were killed Sunday — has complicated efforts to free two reporters held hostage, with even the French Embassy in Baghdad coming under fire.

French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin gave no other news about the fates of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. He reiterated that officials are working for their release and that there are signs the men are alive.

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