Five Russian Embassy employees evacuating Baghdad today were injured when their convoy was caught in a firefight between U.S. and Iraqi troops, witnesses said.
Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko and 22 other embassy staff members and journalists were traveling in eight cars past Iraqi positions just west of the capital city when the Iraqis came under intense fire from coalition forces, according to Alexander Minakov, a reporter with the RTR television network.
"Naturally the Iraqis started to return fire. So we found ourselves caught in the crossfire, basically," Minakov told the state-controlled network. The driver of the ambassador's car was hit in the abdomen and had to undergo an emergency operation in an Iraqi hospital in Feluja, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, he said. Two other embassy employees were seriously injured and two had slight injuries, according to the journalist.
The incident occurred as the U.S. and Russian governments continued to try to patch up differences over the Iraqi crisis that threaten to unravel what both sides had trumpeted as a promising new partnership. President Bush dispatched his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to Moscow today for a series of top-level discussions to help relieve the tensions.
High on President Vladimir Putin's agenda is Russia's role in the political and economic reconstruction of postwar Iraq.
The Russian Foreign Ministry today asked the Iraqi and U.S. ambassadors to investigate the incident and punish whoever was responsible.
Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said the United States had agreed to ensure the Russians' safe passage out of the capital. "But the situation in Baghdad is currently complicated. It is a zone of hostilities. The Iraqi troops are extremely active," he told reporters outside the Foreign Ministry.
A Pentagon official said that U.S. troops knew the Russian convoy was leaving Baghdad, and that the route it was taking was "into bandit territory."
"There's no way we fired on them," the official said, adding that Iraqi troops would have had ample opportunity to target the diplomats.
But Minakov said U.S. soldiers opened fire first, and the Iraqis tried to repel the attack. "We can say this with 100 percent certainty, because we were just passing the Iraqi positions," he said. "I saw it all with my own eyes."
He said the convoy of six cars of diplomats and two cars of journalists left the Russian Embassy about 11:30 a.m., headed for Syria. The car in which the ambassador was riding carried a Russian flag. The journalists' cars were plastered with signs that read "TV."
"One could basically see this was not a military convoy," he said. "So it was difficult to see why our column came under fire."
According to Minakov, shells suddenly began exploding as close as 150 feet away and the column was enveloped in artillery and machine fire. All eight cars were hit, he said.
During a lull, the group bandaged the wounded, and then spotted a column of U.S. armored vehicles and unsuccessfully tried to wave it down with white flags, he said.
The group abandoned one car and traveled on toward the Syrian border. Titorenko decided that the group should spend the night in Feluja and move on Monday to Damascus, where a Russian plane has been sent to meet them.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.