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U.S. F-16 fires a missile at Iraqi defense battery

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A U.S. F-16 fighter fired a missile at an Iraqi surface-to-air missile battery in southern Iraq Tuesday after Iraqi radar locked on four British patrol planes, Pentagon officials said.

The fighter had been accompanying the British Tornadoes enforcing the southern no-fly zone. All planes returned safely to base.The Iraqi radar at the site had illuminated the British jets, signaling an intention to fire, said Pentagon spokesman Col. Richard Bridges.

The incident occurred near Basra in southern Iraq at about 1:30 a.m. EDT, which was during daylight hours in Iraq. The firing of the missile was standard response to Iraq's locking its radar on any allied aircraft, Bridges said.

No U.S. warplanes were fired upon, and there was no report on whether the missile fired by the F-16 struck its target.

"Coalition aircraft pilots assigned to Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia received cockpit indications that they were being targeted by a missile site," said Navy Lt. John O'Neal, spokesman for the U.S. Command, the joint military headquarters responsible for the Persian Gulf region.

"This is considered an action requiring aggressive defensive measures."

In London, the British DefenseMinistry confirmed the incident.

"The Defense Ministry can confirm that a coalition aircraft launched a missile at an Iraqi defense system this morning when that system threatened coalition aircraft on a patrol in the south no-fly zone," a ministry statement said. "We can confirm that Royal Air Force Tornadoes were part of the patrol. All aircraft returned safely."

When enemy radar "locks on" or "paints" a warplane, air commanders consider that a precursor to the firing of a surface-to-air missile. During the seven years that U.S. and allied warplanes have patrolled southern Iraq, Iraqi air defenses have periodically been turned on coalition aircraft. Sometimes the action is so brief that no responsive fire is possible.

The F-16 fired a high-speed anti-radiation, or HARM, missile.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi official called the incident "proof of the aggressiveness of Americans.

"This is an unjustified, aggressive act. No radar was opened," an official at the Ministry of Culture and Information said on customary condition of anonymity.

All the coalition aircraft returned to their bases in Saudi Arabia without further incident. Central Command plans to order an immediate resumption of the patrols.

The F-16 was assigned to the 4404th Air Wing-Provisional, which has been the main land-based air force operating in southern Iraq. Navy aircraft also take part in the deny-flight mission.

O'Neal said he had no reports of any further hostile activity by Iraq.

Tensions with Iraq had subsided in recent months, following a confrontation early this year over Iraqi resistance to U.N. weapons inspections.