BASRA, Iraq — Britain sent in troops to free two undercover soldiers in Basra in southern Iraq after discovering they had been handed over by Iraqi police to local militia, the army said on Tuesday. The men were arrested on charges of shooting two Iraqi policemen.
“From an early stage I had good reason to believe the lives of the two soldiers were at risk,” Brigadier John Lorimer said in a statement to the media.
The British commanding officer in Basra said his concern for the arrested men increased after he received information they had been handed over to “militia elements”.
A decision was taken to enter the police station on Monday and a Warrior armored vehicle crashed through the perimeter wall of the jail. When it was discovered the two men were not in the jail, the men were rescued from a nearby house, he said.
Day of rioting
The two undercover soldiers were rescued after a day of rioting in Basra, sparked when they were said by police and local officials to have fired on an Iraqi police patrol.
“What happened yesterday was that two of our service men were arrested by Iraqi police and under the law as it stands they should have been handed back to the military authorities,” said British Defense Secretary John Reid.
He said that is what the police were asked to do by their own Ministry of the Interior and by local judges.
“But in the course of the day we became increasingly worried that those people in there to negotiate with the police seemed to be having no success in getting our men out.”
Reid said it was not clear whether the Iraqi police were under threat themselves or colluding with local militia.
Lorimer said troops had been sent on Monday to the area of Basra near the police station where the two men had been detained to help ensure their safety.
“As shown on television, these troops were attacked with firebombs and rockets by a violent and determined crowd.”
Furious crowds pelted British armored vehicles with rocks and petrol bombs after the incident in which the British undercover soldiers were said to have fired on Iraqi police.
Tensions in Basra had already been stoked on Sunday when British forces arrested two leading members of the Mehdi army, a nationalist militia led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Questions of sovereignty raised
The events 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 heartland.
Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, condemned the British for raiding the prison, an act he called “barbaric, savage and irresponsible.”
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.
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 Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this article.