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Several injured when rockets hit Iran; U.S., Britain investigating

TEHRAN, Iran—As many as four rockets struck southwestern Iran on Friday and Saturday, injuring several people and drawing strong protests from the Iranian government, which called on the United States and Britain to answer for the incidents, according to Iranian state-run media.

U.S. and British officials said they were investigating.

The first three rockets reportedly struck in and around the southwestern city of Abadan on Friday afternoon, injuring at least two people and damaging a gas station. The fourth landed outside the neighboring city of Khorramshahr, according to the reports. Both Iranian cities are roughly 30 miles east of the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The reports couldn't be independently verified, as the provinces next to the 911-mile border with Iraq have been declared off limits to foreign reporters since the war began. But Pentagon officials acknowledged Saturday that as many as three U.S. missiles aimed at Iraqi targets may have landed in Iran accidentally.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said at a London news conference that the incidents were "being investigated, and we are continuing our contact with the government there," he said, referring to Iran.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry also charged that U.S. and British forces violated its airspace, according to Iranian television newscasts, which downplayed the event. The ministry summoned the ambassadors of Britain and Switzerland—which represents American interests in Iran—to protest the incidents.

U.S. officials said they were investigating the reported landing of missiles on Iranian territory, but weren't yet taking responsibility.

"We take seriously Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity," State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said.

Washington replied Friday evening to an inquiry from Tehran to say U.S. officials would look into the matter, and again Saturday to confirm that it's under investigation, Reeker said.

Despite deep distrust between the United States and Iran, there are reports of a tacit agreement between American officials and their Iranian counterparts for Iran to stay out of the war and return any downed coalition pilots who land on Iranian soil. A similar agreement was struck during the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

But the proximity of southwestern Iran to the war zone makes stray missiles and airspace violations sensitive issues for officials of the Islamic republic, who have officially—and repeatedly—stressed that Iran's airspace is closed to coalition and Iraqi warplanes.

Abadan Gov. Jamal Alemi told the Islamic Republic News Agency that coalition warplanes were seen over his city five times Friday night. There were reports of further coalition warplanes over southwestern Iran on Saturday.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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