Foreign reporters free to move about as minders vanish

LONDON - In a further sign that Saddam Hussein's regime was on the point of collapse, foreign media reporting from Baghdad have said today that their Iraqi government monitors have gone.

The BBC reported that the Iraqi media minders, who have been watching the movements of foreign journalists in Baghdad, have abandoned their posts allowing journalists to file uncensored media reports from the city for the first time.

Censorship in Iraq has been a feature of the war since the conflict broke out three weeks ago.

Presenters in London and the US have prefaced reports from reporters telling viewers that journalists, including the BBC's Rageh Omaar, were having their reports monitored and their movements controlled.

It has also been reported that the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who in recent days has kept Western viewers entertained with his colourful press briefings, has disappeared. Al-Sahaf has not been seen today, wile the head of Iraqi press centre was reported to have last been seen getting into a car and driving north.

Saeed al-Sahaf yesterday claimed that American troops were committing suicide and if they did not surrender they would be burned in their tanks. Earlier he claimed that there were no Americans in the city despite the sound of gunfire coming from outside the press briefing.

The Iraqi TV service, a key implement of Saddam's rule, has been off air since yesterday morning, although Reuters reported today that the national radio service was back on air but with a faint signal.

ITV is billing its live coverage from the city as "Fall of Baghdad" and correspondent John Irvine -- without his flak jacket -- said he had been able to meet up with US marines at the Canal Hotel.

The disappearance of the Iraqi minders and the lifting of reporting restrictions it has led to, comes as looting breaks out in Baghdad as Iraqi soldiers and police disappear from the city's streets.

The BBC reported that hundreds of cheering Iraqi civilians chanting pro-American and anti-Saddam slogans welcomed US Marines when they secured more areas of the city.

US Marines moved into the Shia stronghold suburb of Saddam City overnight, where they were greeted by smiling Iraqis. The BBC said that not a shot was fired.

Yesterday, three journalists were killed and three others wounded in Baghdad after they came under fire from the US.

Reuters said Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protsyuk, 35, died of the wounds he received when a US tank fired a single round at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, which also killed Spanish cameraman Jose Couso, 37.

Earlier, a correspondent for the Arabic TV broadcaster Al Jazeera was killed when US missiles hit the network's office.

A US Defense Department spokeswoman, while expressing regret, said that foreign media had repeatedly been warned that correspondents were "not safe in a war zone". She said American forces were acting in self-defence after Iraqis fired from the hotel.

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