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Hoon denies start of war as raids rise.

Byline: OONAGH BLACKMAN

MINISTERS were yesterday forced to deny war on Iraq had already begun after Allied jets intensified bombing raids on targets in the Iraqi "no-fly" zones.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon admitted the number of patrols by British and US bombers in northern and southern Iraq had increased.

But he told the Commons there had been "no change" in the operation - even though Pentagon officials had admitted that a "more aggressive approach" had been adopted.

He spoke after Iraq claimed six civilians were killed and 15 wounded in raids on the southern city of Basra.

Anti-war MPs from all parties challenged Mr Hoon, insisting Britain was drifting towards conflict.

Labour's Bob Marshall-Andrews said: "This is war by escalation rather than war by declaration."

Lib Dem defence spokesman Paul Keetch said: "When the Pentagon briefs a more aggressive approach is being taken in the no-fly zones, a flat denial from the UK Defence Secretary raises suspicions. The no-fly zones have no official UN sanction - it is imperative they are not abused.

Labour rebel, Doug Henderson said the increased activity in the no-fly zones was a "slide into war". He added: "It looks like Downing Street are riding on the coat-tails of the Americans."

Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: "We are in a drift to war if not accelerating irrevocably to war."
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 4, 2003
Words:226
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