SEVEN British servicemen aboard two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters died in a mid-air collision during action in the war on Iraq.

The collision was said to have happened accidentally above international Gulf waters as British and American forces took part in an extraordinary night of attacks on Iraqi targets.

Iraqi sources today claimed 250 civilians had been injured during the wave of bombings which left Baghdad in flames.

And Iranian sources claimed two of their country's villages had been hit by US missiles.

The Allies claimed a number of Iraqi installations were hit during night raids on 1,000 targets, and as dawn broke a fresh bombardment struck the city. It was reported that the Iraqi intelligence HQ and a presidential palace had been hit as 320 Cruise missiles were fired at Baghdad. The night's bombardment cost an estimated £200m.

Some reports suggested key members of the Iraqi military had been killed during the blitz, and rumours persisted that Saddam had died during the first night of the conflict.

The cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Ticrit were also said to have come under attack, and today large areas of southern Iraq were apparently under coalition control as US Marines became engaged in an intense battle near the city of Basra.

It was said that up to 8,000 men from an Iraqi army division had surrendered to Allied forces, although this was denied by Iraq.

There was US and Kurdish anger at reports that 1,000 Turkish soldiers had gone into northern Iraq.

Both are opposed to the incursion which Turkey insist it needs to conduct to prevent a repeat of the large-scale refugee exodus that followed the last Gulf War.

Turkey has, however, agreed to let US combat aircraft fly in its airspace.

In Britain, thousands of people were set to take to the streets of London and many others were due to assemble to the Menwith Hill airbase near Harrogate, for a fresh wave of peace protests.

North Yorkshire police have urged that the protest should be peaceful.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was meeting his war cabinet in the capital today to discuss the latest developments as the conflict enters its fourth day.