In a dramatic show of force, British soldiers used tanks 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. The Basra governor called the rescue a "barbaric" act of aggression.
But in London, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement that two British troops held by Iraqi authorities in Basra were released as a result of negotiations. It said the two service personnel were with British forces.
A Defense spokesman added 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 to free the two troops.
British Broadcasting Corp. quoted an unidentified Iraqi official in Basra as saying that the two Britons "were driving a civilian car and were dressed in civilian clothes when a shooting took place between them and Iraqi patrols."
In a public humiliation, Arab satellite television stations showed pictures of two Western men sitting on the floor of the jail building with 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.
In other developments:
The fighting in the oil city of Basra, 340 miles south of the capital, erupted after British armor encircled the jail where the two Britons were being held. Demonstrators, apparently angry about the shootings of the policemen, hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at British tanks, and at least two people were killed.
During the melee one British soldier could be seen in a photograph scrambling for his life from a burning tank and the rock-throwing mob.
Aquil Jabbar, an Iraqi television cameraman who lives across the street from the jail, said about 150 Iraqi prisoners fled as British commandos stormed inside late Monday and rescued their comrades.
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, according to Ministry of Defense officials in London.
British military officials had declined to comment on reports the two arrested men were soldiers operating undercover wearing Arab civilian clothing, but the Ministry of Defense told Press Association that "two military personnel were detained by Iraqi authorities earlier today."
Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of the province, said British raid was "barbaric, savage and irresponsible."
"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.
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.
This past summer, freelance journalist Steven Vincent wrote a column in The New York Times accusing Basra police of being infiltrated by Shiite militiamen. Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 2, Vincent was abducted at gunpoint and his body was discovered that night on the side of the highway south of Basra. A senior British official said Islamic militants — and not Iraqi police — probably killed Vincent.