BAGHDAD was rocked by overnight explosions, with two large blasts heard as daylight first broke over the Iraqi capital.

Reports suggested that earlier during the latest bombardment of the city a presidential palace and the area around the Information Ministry may have been hit.

British forces have been involved in fierce fighting near Basra, where they are said to have taken the stronghold of Abu al-Khasib, believed to have been the source of recent Iraqi tank attacks.

Royal Marines captured about 200 Iraqis, but earlier reports that one of them was a general were later denied.

A British soldier, said to be a Royal Marine commando, was killed when his river patrol was ambushed further south, on the Al Faw peninsula.

British military sources praised the bravery of a corporal who regained control of the embattled craft and got it away after it came under heavy grenade and gunfire attacks.

Three US troops were killed and a fourth injured in a helicopter crash in southern Iraq.

The American commander, General Tommy Franks, denied his ground forces' advance had ground to a halt before Baghdad, during a briefing with the media in which he also said that US-led forces had overrun a "terrorist facility" in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said the war was going well from his side's point of view, adding it had brought in suicide bombers "from elsewhere".

American sources said they believed Islamic fighters from outside Iraq, including some with experience of warfare in Afghanistan, were fighting in the city of Nasiriyah.

Updated: 08:22 Monday, March 31, 2003