MOSCOW – A convoy of Russian diplomats leaving Iraq came under fire Sunday, injuring at least four people, the Foreign Ministry said. A journalist said the group, which included the Russian ambassador, was caught in crossfire between coalition and Iraqi forces.
The incident came as Moscow and Washington seek to ensure relations will not be ruined by the U.S.-led war, which Russia firmly opposes.
The U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors were called to the Russian Foreign Ministry, but Russia did not indicate whether it believed coalition or Iraqi forces were responsible. U.S. Central Command said initial field reports indicated the incident took place in Iraqi-controlled territory and that no coalition forces were in the area.
Leaving the ministry, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow confirmed the United States had been aware of the planned evacuation in advance. He said it was unclear who fired on the convoy.
The eight-car convoy was fired upon as it left Baghdad for the Syrian border, about 200 miles away, the Foreign Ministry said. Spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said four or five of the 23 people in the convoy were injured, but their injuries were not life-threatening.
A journalist in the convoy said it was caught in a crossfire while passing heavily armed Iraqi positions near the outskirts of Baghdad. Alexander Minakov of state-run Rossiya television said the Iraqi positions came under heavy fire from what he said were American forces, and that the two sides also exchanged automatic weapons fire.
"We couldn't raise our heads for about half an hour," he said.
Minakov, speaking to Rossiya from Iraq's border with Jordan, where he and other journalists traveled after the incident, said three diplomats were wounded, including one with a serious stomach wound, and two others were injured.
Minakov said it appeared U.S. forces opened fire first. He said bullet holes in a convoy vehicle matched the caliber of bullets from an American M-16.
Minakov said a bullet hit the windshield of the Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko's vehicle and passed between him and the driver. In Moscow, Yakovenko said the ambassador was not injured but had some scratches.
Afterward, a large American armored column passed in front of them, Minakov said. "We came up to them waving white rags to attract their attention," hoping for help, he said, but the column moved on.
Minakov's account differed from one reported by the Interfax news agency. An unidentified source said that after the initial exchange of fire a car with a flag was sent ahead toward a column of jeeps to explain who was in the convoy and was fired upon, Interfax reported.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press the Russian convoy had safely passed coalition ground troops before it was attacked "out in more open territory" west of Baghdad.
"Somewhere after they got out past our main forces they were attacked. We don't know by whom or by how many," Pace said in Washington.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Secretary of State Colin Powell called Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and expressed deep regret. State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz confirmed the call but would not comment on what Powell said.
Yakovenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Russian diplomats had stopped in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, and would probably spend the night there.
The incident came four days after Russia protested what it said were American airstrikes on the Baghdad neighborhood where the Russian Embassy is located. Most of the embassy staff had left earlier, but some had stayed until Sunday and a smaller group still remains, the Foreign Ministry said.
Russia is opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. However, President Vladimir Putin has attempted to adopt a softer tone in recent days, saying a U.S. defeat would not be in Russia's interests and pledging continued cooperation with the United States.