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‘Chaos’ as shell hits journalists’ hotel

/ Source: NBC News

When I first heard word that an artillery round had struck the Palestine Hotel, where most of the foreign journalists in Baghdad are staying, I assumed it was accidental. That would not have been a surprise, given all of the firing going on in the vicinity.

The shell struck the wall of a balcony on the 15th floor, near the Reuters office. Photographers have cameras set up on the balconies of the top floors of the hotel, where they have a wide view of the Iraqi skyline.

Although most of the windows in the hotel are covered with large “X”s of masking tape, to avoid injuries from broken glass, the explosion sent shrapnel and shattered glass flying everywhere.

I rushed down to the hotel’s reception area and counted five people being brought out, carried by other journalists on carpets or makeshift stretchers.

People, some of them covered in blood, were screaming as everyone tried to rush the injured off to a hospital.

Amid the chaos, people were trying to figure out whether the firing came from Iraqi or U.S. forces. Only later did U.S. Central Command announce that one of its tanks had been fired upon near the hotel and had returned fire, striking the hotel with one shell.

But journalists who were in the hotel had not heard any gunfire in the area, nor could we find any journalists who had.

ITN’s John Irvine reported that the tank that fired the shell was apparently part of the unit that had spent the night in the American post set up in the Iraqi government’s administrative complex across the Tigris River.

Top U.S. officials said they would leave it up to the commanders on the ground to decide whether they stayed in place or pulled back during the night.

They not only stayed, but decided in the morning to move forward. The firing began around 4 a.m. At first, the noise sounded like an Iraqi counterattack, but it was not.

The Americans moved through the Iraqi lines very quickly, driving their opponents before them, and two tanks crossed over a bridge in the center of Baghdad.

But as the tanks reached the bridge, they were fired upon by Iraqis in the distance. On videotape taken from the balcony of the Palestine hotel seconds before it was struck, the tank is visible, its turret rotating to face the hotel.

Then the gun fired. Two photographers were killed: Taras Protsyuk, 35, of Reuters; and Jose Couso, 37, of Spain’s Telecinco. Three Reuters staffers were injured.

Two miles away, al Jazeera correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed when a U.S. bomb hit the satellite television station’s office in the Iraqi capital. Another Al-Jazeera staffer was wounded.

For journalists here, the battle for Baghdad was suddenly very close to home.

(Neal Connery is an ITN correspondent reporting from Baghdad. ITN’s John Irvine and Reuters also contributed to this report.)