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Iraq's Umm Qasr port opens for aid shipments

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- An influx of humanitarian aid is en route to the Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr, a military official said March 26.

"The port is being prepared for reopening and port workers have been invited to come back and begin work," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for U.S. Central Command. An Australian-led maritime coalition force has thwarted attempts by the Iraqi regime to lay mines in the Khor Abdullah waterway that leads in to the port.

The maritime force has intercepted several "civilian vessels" carrying explosive mines. On March 24, a small Iraqi boat with mines was stopped and "subsequently destroyed," Brooks said. Australian Defence Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Elliott told CNN International that the command ship HMAS Kanimbla is leading the coalition effort to keep the Khor Abdullah mine-free.

He said mine clearing work is hazardous, but the divers are focused on their mission. The environment -- in addition to dealing with potential explosive devices in the water -- is challenging, he said. "It's a very demanding process; very, very tense on the mind," Elliott said.

On March 25, forces from the United Kingdom secured Umm Qasr, paving the way for humanitarian deliveries.

"The last few days have raised real concern for the welfare of civilians caught in the conflict, especially children," said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. UNICEF has expressed "a renewed concern" for children caught up in the Iraqi war, particularly in the southern city of Basra. Brooks said military activity in Basra late March 25 was confusing.

Fighting was reported in the city between uniformed and non-uniformed Iraqis. He said Iraqi mortar fire targeting the town had to be repressed by counterfire from U.K. forces.

"Again, a disregard for the people living there," Brooks said.

Brooks said it is clear that the people of Basra are fed up with the way they have been treated. Basra's water supply was turned off by the regime and only recently turned back on, he said.

"Our efforts are in fact to liberate the Iraqi people and free them from the types of brutality that we've seen exhibited over the last several days," Brooks said. (Courtesy of CENTCOM)

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