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Brits dressed as iraqis fire at police { September 20 2005 }

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September 20, 2005
British Army Storms Basra Jail to Free 2 Soldiers From Arrest

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 19 - Two British soldiers working under cover were arrested Monday in the southern city of Basra and then freed as a British armored vehicle blasted through the wall of their jail after an angry crowd began rioting outside, an Interior Ministry official said.

The official said that the soldiers were undercover officers dressed as Iraqis and that Iraqi police officers had arrested them after the men fired at a traffic police officer.

A British military spokesman in Basra confirmed that "two U.K. military personnel" had been detained early on Monday "in a shooting incident" and that troops had used an armored fighting vehicle "to gain entry" to the police station to release them. He said that more than one vehicle had been in the area and that the police inside the station had refused to obey orders from the Interior Ministry to release the men.

The incident came a day after British forces in Basra arrested three members of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the rebellious Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, on suspicion of terrorism.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the riot began Monday evening when militia members converged on the police station holding the British men, apparently hoping to seize them in order to free their three colleagues in British custody. The British spokesman said there had been 100 to 200 people in the crowd.

Ali Dabagh, a Shiite member of the National Assembly who had just emerged from a briefing with Interior Minister Bayan Jabr in Baghdad on Monday night, said that militia members had begun attacking the station with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and that British troops soon responded to defend it.

The ministry official said that British armored vehicles had fired on the station, headquarters of the major crimes unit in central Basra, and broken through its outer wall. Troops then stormed in and freed the two men, he said. There were reports of prisoners escaping, but the official denied them.

A broadcast on Al Arabiya satellite television showed two men, whom the station identified as British undercover officers, one with his head bandaged and both with their hands behind their backs.

The video showed men and boys hurling stones at a burning armored fighting vehicle outside the police station. A British soldier could be seen climbing out of the hatch and jumping to the ground, as the crowd pelted him.

[Despite the graphic images, British Defense Minister John Reid said Monday that the soldiers wounded in the attack were "being treated for minor injuries only and are expected to return to duty shortly," Agence France-Presse reported.]

Reuters reported that two Iraqis had been killed in the fighting. The Interior Ministry official said that 25 people had been wounded but that he could not confirm any deaths.

Violence continued in other parts of the country. Car bombs exploded near Iraqi police convoys in Mahmudiya and Latifiya, just south of Baghdad, just after 1:30 p.m., killing a total of nine police commandos and wounding 12, officials said.

In the northern city of Mosul, a man driving a sport utility vehicle blew himself up with a bomb near an American convoy, killing at least one civilian. The military did not report any deaths of soldiers in the attack.

In a statement on an Internet site on Monday, the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia modified a declaration of war made last week by its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The statement said followers of Mr. Sadr, the Shiite cleric, who has twice ordered his group to fight against American troops, would not be directly attacked.

In an effort to persuade Iraqis that it is taking a hard line with insurgents, the Iraqi government announced that the Central Criminal Court had handed down sentences for 54 foreigners who had been convicted of crossing into Iraq illegally. A majority were from Syria and Saudi Arabia.

In another court action on Monday, Saddam Hussein's nephew Ayman Sabawi was sentenced to life in prison for supporting the insurgency. Mr. Sabawi was arrested in May in Tikrit. His father, Sabawi Ibrahim alHassan, Mr. Hussein's half brother, was arrested in February and is awaiting trial.

Robert F. Worth and Qais Mizher contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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