Two British troops held in Iraq freed after negotiations, officials say

Britain said Monday that two of its troops held by Iraqi authorities were released after negotiations, even as reports that British tanks crashed into their jail to free them fueled further criticism of British involvement in Iraq.

"I can confirm that the two British service personnel detained earlier today ... have now been released and are back with British forces," Defense Secretary John Reid said in a statement.

A Ministry of Defense spokesman added that they were released as a result of negotiations. He said he had no information suggesting they were freed as a result of any overt military action.

But the spokesman stopped short of denying reports that British tanks crashed through the walls of a jail in Basra, southern Iraq to free the two troops. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as is customary with British government spokesmen.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Downing Street office had no comment on the reported jail break.

The reports of tanks crashing into the jail drew condemnation from politicians who have opposed Britain's decision to send troops to Iraq.

"It is hard to see how relations between the British military and the civilian Iraqi authorities in Basra will ever be the same again," said Menzies Campbell, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats opposition party, which opposed the Iraq war.

"This is bound to be seen as a humiliation by many Iraqis _ something the insurgents will use to their advantage," he added. "An operation of this kind must have gone to the highest level. I would be surprised if the Prime Minister had not been consulted."

Maverick lawmaker George Galloway, who was expelled from Blair's Labor Party in 2003 after urging British soldiers not to fight in Iraq, said the violence in Basra showed a breakdown of control.

"The British are one fatwa away from a total disaster in Iraq," Galloway said. "The British Army has always prided itself on its discipline. What is going on here? Is anyone in charge?"

Galloway was re-elected to Parliament in May as a representative of his own anti-war Respect party, AP reported.

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