BASRA, Iraq – British forces were "absolutely right" to use armored vehicles to break into a Basra (search) jail to free two of their colleagues, British officials said Tuesday, but Iraqi authorities denounced the operation as "very unfortunate."
The Iraqis had said the British soldiers were detained Monday after opening fire on police in the southern city, killing one officer. A government spokesman, however, said Tuesday that the men, wearing civilian clothes, were arrested because they were "acting very suspiciously" and trying to gather information. It was impossible to reconcile the two claims.
British officials maintain the men were illegally detained and then handed over to Shiite militiamen. Fearing the soldiers would be killed, the British said, they acted quickly and properly to rescue them.
Mohammed al-Waili (search), the governor of Basra Province, confirmed Tuesday the two Britons had been held by members of one of three Shiite militias operating in the city, many of them doubling as police.
British Defense Minister John Reid (search) said laws under which the Iraqi government was given sovereignty in summer 2004 require that coalition forces detained by Iraqi authorities must be handed over to the U.S.-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 Corp.
"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.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, however, said Tuesday he did not know the extent of the involvement of Interior Ministry officials in Baghdad.
"My understanding is, first, it happened very quickly. Second, there is lack of discipline in the whole area regarding this matter," Haydar al-Abadi told reporters. "It is [a] very unfortunate development that the British forces should try to release their soldiers the way it happened."
British officials initially claimed the men were released after negotiations. But Iraqi authorities and witnesses in Basra, about 340 miles southwest of Baghdad, said the British laid siege to the jail Monday afternoon and hours later, with rioting engulfing the area, smashed through its walls using armored vehicles.
Earlier, outside the jail, a melee erupted in the streets as angry demonstrators attacked the encircling British armor with stones and Molotov cocktails. During the chaos, one British soldier could be seen scrambling for his life from a burning Warrior armored fighting vehicle and the rock-throwing mob.
Arab satellite TV cameramen photographed the two, who appeared to be Westerners and were sitting on the floor in the jail in blue jeans and T-shirts, their hands tied behind them. Later, the men were videotaped during an interrogation, sitting in chairs.
In some pictures, one man had a bandage on his head, the other had blood on his clothes.
"Probably, they had been there watching for something, collecting information," al-Abadi said. "For two guys to collect information in civilian clothes, [given] the current tense security situation in Iraq and in Basra, I believe the reaction of the Iraqi security forces totally is understood."
British officials backtracked from earlier claims that the men were not freed using force.
"Minor damage was caused to the prison compound wall and to the house in which our two soldiers were held," said Brig. John Lorimer, commander of the 12th Mechanized Brigade.
Daytime pictures from the jail Tuesday showed a concrete wall broken through, several cars crushed — apparently by armored vehicles — and prefabricated structures demolished.
British officials said three soldiers were slightly wounded in the clashes while Iraqi authorities claimed that at least three civilians were killed.
Al-Waili, the Basra provincial governor, 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.
Tension has been building in Basra, a city of about 1.5 million that has been spared much of the violence gripping the rest of the country.
Militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets Saturday demanding the release of a local al-Mahdi Army commander. Then, on Sunday, an Iraqi journalist working for The New York Times was killed after men claiming to be police officers took him from his home.
In August, American freelance journalist Steven Vincent was abducted and killed by men in a police car after having written that Basra's police force was heavily infiltrated by radical Shiite militiamen.
A senior British official said Islamic militants — and not Iraqi police — probably killed Vincent.