Saddam Hussein’s forces are firing on citizens of the southern Iraqi city of Basra who have launched an uprising against the dictator’s regime, according to news reports.

British forces have returned fire on Iraqi mortar positions set up to crush the rebellion, a British ITV News Channel reporter with the troops said.

A top Baath party official has been captured by British forces, a UK spokesman said.

Intelligence from Iraq’s second city indicated that citizens wanted to welcome the coalition forces but were in fear of Saddam, said reporter Richard Gaisford.

“Now it seems they have had the courage to stand up to Saddam Hussein and his regime and they will be supported by British forces,” Gaisford said.

Reuters reported that Iraq’s main Shiite opposition group confirmed the uprising.

“We confirm an uprising is taking place in Basra, but we cannot give more details for the time being,” said Mohamed Hadi Asadi, a spokesman for the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Iraq denied the reports.

“I want to affirm to you that Basra is continuing to hold steadfast,” Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf told Qatar-based Al Jazeera television.

The coalition originally planned for British forces to surround Basra but not attack it. However, the city has been the scene of fierce artillery exchanges between British forces and Iraqis backed by Fedayeen fighters and members of Saddam’s Special Security Organization, the London Telegraph reported.

British forces destroyed 20 Iraqi tanks as fighting intensified around Basra. Huge AS90 guns were aimed at 11 targets, including tanks and artillery pieces, but the forces faced a counter-attack by as many as 50 Iraqi tanks.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the head of British forces in the Gulf, said, according to the Telegraph: “When you go in and sort out an urban area you are not out to break the china – we want to win hearts and minds but we will have to use force.”

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