British troops in Iraq were on high alert yesterday for fear of further clashes as tensions continued over the rescue at tank-point of two British undercover soldiers.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed to News Line yesterday that warrior tanks had breached an Iraqi jail compound. The MoD claimed no shots were fired.
Basra governor Mohammed al-Waili said more than ten vehicles and helicopters had been used in what he described as a ‘barbaric act of aggression’.
The two special forces troops, believed to be SAS, were arrested for shooting at puppet Iraqi police when driving through an Iraqi checkpoint.
They were dressed in Arab clothing. Iraqi National Assembly member Fattah al-Shaykh, deputy for Basra said their car ‘was a booby-trapped car laden with ammunition and was meant to explode in the centre of the city of Basra in the popular market.’
Al-Waili said the men were arrested for allegedly shooting dead a policeman and wounding another.
The incident sparked violent protests on Monday, with angry crowds of youth pelting two Warrior tanks with petrol bombs and stones, and images of blazing troops desperately escaping from burning tanks, appeared on the world’s TV screens on Monday night.
In a statement on the incident, senior British Army commander in Iraq, Brigadier John Lorimer said yesterday that undercover troops should have been handed over to the British occupation forces but ‘this did not happen’.
He added that British ‘troops were sent to the area of Basra near the police station to help ensure their safety by providing a cordon’.
In an attempt to play down the explosive situation, Brigadier Lorimer said a crowd had gathered but numbered ‘just 200-300 out of a population of 1.5 million’.
He continued: ‘Later in the day, however, I became more concerned about the safety of the two soldiers after we received information that they had been handed over to militia elements.
‘As a result I took the difficult decision to order entry to the Jamiat Police Station. By taking this action we were able to confirm that the soldiers were no longer being held by the IPS (Iraqi Police Service).
‘An operation was then mounted to rescue them from a house in Basra.’
Defence Secretary John Reid yesterday denied Iraqi claims that over 150 prisoners had escpaped from the Basra jail as a result of Monday’s operation.
The mood in Basra has been tense since a former commander of the Basra Mahdi Army was arrested and badly treated by UK troops (see p6/7).
But Reid resisted calls from the Liberal Democrats and Respect MP George Galloway for UK troops to withdraw.
Reid said: ‘This decision will be taken by the British Government, at the request of the Iraqi democratically elected representatives.
‘We have said all along that our troops will stay there as long as they are needed and requested by the Iraqis, that when they withdraw. . . it will not be an event, it will be a process.
‘And I have said since around June that I envisage that that process, which will start unequally in different parts of the country, could start within a year.’