British armored vehicles broke down the wall of a jail in the southern city of Basra during a raid to free two British soldiers who were later found in the custody of local militiamen elsewhere in the city. Britain's defense minister yesterday defended the raid as "absolutely right."
Also yesterday, a US official said that a suicide bomber killed four Americans -- a Diplomatic Security agent and three private security agents -- in the northern city of Mosul. No other details were provided by the official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information.
After the day of violence in Basra on Monday, British authorities said their soldiers were being held illegally and that their captors had refused an order from the Iraqi Interior Minister for their release. The commander of the operation to free the pair sought to minimize the extent of destruction at the jail.
"Minor damage was caused to the prison compound wall and to the house in which our two soldiers were held," said Brigadier John Lorimer, commander of the 12 Mechanized Brigade.
Daylight pictures from the jail yesterday showed a concrete wall broken through, several cars crushed -- apparently by armored vehicles -- and a number of prefabricated structures demolished.
Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, condemned the British for raiding the prison, an act he called "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.
British Defense Minister John Reid said laws under which the Iraqi government was given sovereignty in the summer of last year require that coalition forces detained by Iraqi authorities must be handed over to the US-led multinational force.
"I understand also that the Minister of the Interior, at the highest level, instructed that they should be [handed over], that the local judicial authorities said the same," Reid told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
"And that is why in the course of the day, while we were negotiating, in view of that fact that they weren't handed over, we got increasingly worried and the commander on the spot, with hindsight, was absolutely right to do what he did, because we discovered they weren't in the police station, they were somewhere else, but are now safe," said Reid.
Reid's comments contradicted earlier Defense Ministry statements in which British authorities said the two soldiers were freed through negotiations.
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 to rescued their comrades. Iraqi and British officials said that was not true.
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 latest violence in the oil city of Basra, 545km south of the capital, began early Monday when local authorities reported arresting the two Britons, described as special forces commandos dressed in civilian clothing, for allegedly shooting two Iraqi policemen, one of whom reportedly died.