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US jets attack suspected militant site

Hospital official says children among 20 that died in Fallujah

BAGHDAD -- US warplanes unleashed devastating airstrikes on a suspected hideout where operatives from an Al Qaeda-linked group were meeting yesterday, and hospital officials said 20 people died.

One strike hit an ambulance as it sped away with wounded, a hospital official said; the US military said innocent lives were spared.

Video is said to show beheading of kidnapped Turk. A14

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

The US military said jets carried out the strike on a site in Fallujah, where several members of a group led by Zarqawi were meeting. It was at least the fifth airstrike in the past week on the city, indicating the high priority US 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 in a statement.

''Intelligence reports indicated that only Zarqawi operatives and associates were at the meeting location at the time of the strike," the statement said. ''Based on analysis of these reports, Iraqi Security Forces and multinational forces effectively and accurately targeted these terrorists while protecting the lives of innocent civilians."

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

''We did not hit a marketplace," said Major Jay Antonelli in a statement, 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 airstrike, which 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.

At least 20 people were killed and 29 wounded in the attack, said Dr. Ahmad Taher of the Fallujah General Hospital. Women and children were among the dead, he said.

The hospital was overwhelmed with the wounded, its white sheets soiled with blood.

One woman who went to the hospital hysterically pulled at her hair. ''I lost my son," she screamed between sobs. ''I wish it were me."

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

A 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 website 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. Kumdereli was reported kidnapped Aug. 14.

Also yesterday, explosions rocked central Baghdad, but the location or nature of the blasts was not immediately clear. And the governor of the northern Kurdish province of Dahuk escaped an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb went off as his car was passing, police said. There were no injuries. It was the first such attack in the largely peaceful province since the US invasion in Iraq began in March last year.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini went to Kuwait yesterday in hopes of winning the release of two Italian women kidnapped in Iraq.

France's interior minister said the surge in fighting -- 78 people were killed Sunday -- has complicated efforts to free two reporters held hostage, with even the French embassy in Baghdad coming under fire.

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.

''We are doing this in an extremely difficult context, because fighting is redoubling in Iraq," he said.

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