British soldiers accused of opening fire on Iraqi police freed

Two British soldiers reported to have been released from a prison in the southern Iraqi city of Basra after a raid by British troops.

The two men - who were arrested after being accused of opening fire on Iraqi police after failing to stop at a checkpoint - were initially taken to a police station and UK government officials say they immediately began negotiating their release.

"We understand that the authorities ordered their release. Unfortunately they weren't released and we became concerned for their safety and as a result a Warrior infantry fighting vehicle broke down the perimeter wall in one place," a British MoD spokesman told.

Soldiers went in and searched the entire prison but discovered the men weren't there, he said, adding: "but we did obtain intelligence that pointed to where they were. We then launched another operation to recover them, from a house in Basra."

Eyewitnesses said that around 150 prisoners escaped from the prison during the raid, a claim the Ministry of Defence denies. However, the governor of Basra called the army raid a "barbaric act of aggression," and said ten tanks and helicopters were used in the operation.

The arrests of the two men sparked angry protests in Basra on Monday, and two British tanks sent to the police station where the men were being held came under attack and were set on fire. TV pictures showed troops climbing out of the flaming tanks, at least one of whom was on fire himself. The British defence minister John Reid said in a statement later that three servicemen were being treated for minor injuries. Civilians were also injured in the protests, in which petrol bombs and stones were thrown at the tanks.

Reid insisted, however, that British troops will remain in Basra for as long as the Iraqi government deems their presence necessary.

Basra has been relatively untouched by the violence which has plagued other parts of the country since the US-led invasion. British troops had been patrolling the area without helmets, in an effort to win over the trust of the local people, but tensions have been running high since they arrested a senior figure in the Shiite Mehdi Army, the AKI reports.

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