British forces and demonstrators
exchanged gunfire Monday after two undercover British soldiers were arrested
for allegedly gunning down an Iraqi police officer.
Operation frees undercover soldiers accused of shooting Iraqi police
BASRA, Iraq - British soldiers used 10 armored vehicles to break down
the walls of the central jail in this southern city Monday and freed two Britons,
allegedly undercover commandos arrested on charges of shooting two Iraqi policemen,
witnesses said. But the British government said the two men were released as
a result of negotiations.
The different versions of events came on a chaotic day that raised questions
about how much sovereignty Iraqi authorities really were granted when the U.S.-led
Coalition Provisional Authority handed over power to an interim Iraqi government
in the summer of 2004.
The arrests of the two Britons on Monday appeared to have been the first real
and public test of how far that sovereignty extends. There have been no known
incidents of Iraqi authorities arresting U.S. soldiers operating in the Iraqi
Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, condemned the British
for raiding the prison, an act he called “barbaric, savage and irresponsible.”
Governor condemns ‘irresponsible act’
“A British force of more than 10 tanks backed by helicopters
attacked the central jail and destroyed it. This is an irresponsible act,”
al-Waili said, adding that the British force had spirited the prisoners away
to an unknown location.
Aquil Jabbar, an Iraqi television cameraman who lives across the street
from the Basra jail, said about 150 Iraqi prisoners fled as British commandos
stormed inside and rescued their comrades.
Late Monday, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, speaking in London on condition
of anonymity as is customary, said he had no information suggesting the men
were freed as a result of any overt military action. But the spokesman stopped
short of denying reports that British vehicles crashed through the jail walls.
The ministry issued a statement saying the two Britons were back with other
According to the BBC, defense officials insisted they had been talking to the
Iraqi authorities to secure the release of the men, but acknowledged
a wall was demolished as British forces tried to “collect” the two
U.K. under fire
While the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, where 8,500 British troops are based,
has been far quieter than Sunni regions to the north, Britons have come under
increasingly frequent attacks in recent weeks. The British military has reported
96 deaths since the war began in 2003.
That compares with the deaths of 1,899 Americans who are stationed nearer the
violent insurgent regions around Baghdad and stretching west to the Syrian border.
The latest violence in the oil city of Basra, 340 miles south of the capital,
began early Monday when local authorities reported arresting the two Britons,
described as special forces commandos dressed in Arab clothing, for allegedly
shooting two Iraqi policemen, one of whom died.
British armor then encircled the jail where the two Britons were held.
Television cameramen from Arab satellite broadcasters in the Persian Gulf were
allowed to photograph the two men, clearly Westerners who were by that time
sitting on the floor in the jail in blue jeans and T-shirts, their hands tied
behind their backs.
One of the men had a bandage covering most of the top of his head. The other
had blood on his clothes. Television commentary identified them only as Britons.
Battle in the streets
Outside the jail, a melee broke out in the streets as angry demonstrators attacked
the encircling British armor with stones and Molotov cocktails. During the chaos,
one British soldier could be seen in a photograph scrambling for his life from
a burning Warrior armored personnel carrier and the rock-throwing mob.
Press Association, the British news agency, reported that three British soldiers
were hurt during the violence but said none of their injuries was life-threatening.
After nightfall, 10 British armored vehicles returned to the jail, crashed
through walls and freed the two captives, witnesses said. An Associated Press
reporter saw the vehicles smash into the jail.