British tanks in 'smash and grab raid'

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Key points

• British troops stormed Basra central jail and freed two soldiers

• The soldiers were arrested on charges of shooting two Iraqi policemen

• At least four people have been killed in a day marred by rioting and violence

Key quote

"A British force of more than ten tanks backed by helicopters attacked the central jail and destroyed it. This is an irresponsible act," - Province governor Mohammed al-Waili

Story in full BRITISH soldiers freed two comrades in a dramatic operation last night just hours after the men, believed to be with an undercover special forces unit, were arrested on charges of shooting two Iraqi policemen.

Witnesses and Iraqi officials claimed British troops backed by up to ten tanks smashed down the walls of the central jail in the southern city of Basra and freed the two men.

An Iraqi television cameraman who lives across the street from the jail said about 150 Iraqi prisoners also fled as British troops stormed inside and rescued their comrades.

Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of the province, described the British raid as "barbaric, savage and irresponsible".

"A British force of more than ten tanks backed by helicopters attacked the central jail and destroyed it. This is an irresponsible act," Mr al-Waili said, adding that the British force had spirited the prisoners away to an unknown location.

The Ministry of Defence was last night insisting that the release of the two soldiers had been secured through negotiation and not by force, although reports suggested damage had been caused to the jail. An MoD official said a wall had been demolished "by accident".

The dramatic events followed a day of violence in the city.

Tensions had soared earlier as demonstrators hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at British tanks. At least four people were killed.

The fighting erupted after British armour encircled the jail where the two Britons were being held. One soldier was seen scrambling from a stricken, burning tank to escape the rock-throwing mob. The soldier was engulfed in flames as he escaped from his burning vehicle.

The rioting was triggered by the arrest of the two soldiers who allegedly shot at an Iraqi police patrol that challenged them as they drove through the city. The Iraqis claim the soldiers, who were said to be dressed in Arab robes, killed one police officer and wounded another during the firefight.

Television footage showed the captured soldiers slouched against what appeared to be the wall of a prison cell, with their hands behind their backs. One had his head swathed in bandages and appeared to have bloodstains on his top, while the other had plasters on his head and was wearing what looked like blood-smeared trousers. The Ministry of Defence said three British soldiers were hurt during the earlier violence, but none of their injuries was life-threatening.

Officials denied the reports that its troops made a smash and grab raid to free their captured colleagues.

"We've heard nothing to suggest we stormed the prison," an MoD spokesman said. "We understand there were negotiations."

In Britain, the earlier clashes had been seized on by those demanding clarity on when British troops will withdraw from the south of Iraq, where they have increasingly come under attack from insurgents. The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell, said the events "underlined the need for a coherent exit strategy of British forces".

Reacting to the later reports that British forces had stormed the prison, Sir Menzies said: "It is hard to see how relations between the British military and the civilian Iraqi authorities in Basra will ever be the same again.

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

The MoD had earlier declined to comment on the day's events, beyond confirming that "two British military personnel were detained by Iraqi authorities".

But Iraqi officials, who had dispatched a senior judge to question the pair, were insisting that the British military in Basra had confirmed that they were on an undercover mission. Mohammed al-Abadi, an official of the Basra authorities, said their cover had been blown after local police became suspicious and approached them. "A policeman approached them and then one of these guys fired at him. Then the police managed to capture them," he said. "They refused to say what their mission was. They said they were British soldiers and [suggested] to ask their commander about their mission."

Defence sources have told The Scotsman that the soldiers were part of an undercover special forces detachment set up this year to try to "bridge the intelligence void" in Basra. The detachment draws on special forces' experience in Northern Ireland and Aden, where British troops went "deep" undercover in local communities to try to break the code of silence against foreign forces.

The troops are under the jurisdiction of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment that was formed last year by the then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, to gather so-called human intelligence during counter-terrorist missions.

The day of dramatic incident comes amid an increasingly volatile security picture in Basra, which until earlier this summer enjoyed a reputation as one of the most-trouble free cities in Iraq. Earlier this month, three British soldiers were killed in two separate roadside bomb attacks, thought to be the work of a newly-arrived insurgent unit that specialises in targeting coalition personnel.

There have also been increased tensions following the arrest of the local leader of the al-Mahdi army, a heavily armed street gang loyal to the outlawed Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Members of al-Mahdi are thought to have been behind the violent protests that took place outside the city's main Felony Crimes Department, where a crowd of around 200 people gathered when news spread that the soldiers were being held inside.

Not long after British troops arrived on the scene, an armoured vehicle accompanying them came under attack from petrol bombs. Television footage showed it reversing back and forth among the crowd as a fire erupted on its roof.

As it did so, a soldier climbed out of the vehicle's hatch and jumped clear of it, as the crowd pelted him with stones. Two Iraqis were reported to have been killed in the riot. Photographs of the disturbances showed a soldier in flames as he tumbled from a personnel carrier. Reports also said that people were driving through the streets of Basra with loudhailers demanding that the arrested Britons remain in detention and be sent to jail.

At the weekend it was reported that Britain has shelved plans to begin a staged withdrawal of the 9,000 British troops from Iraq by next year. The apparent change in policy has confirmed fears that Iraq is a long way off from being stable enough to be policed by its own forces alone.