British forces set 48-hour deadline for surrender of Iraqi gunmen

Gun battle started after 'soldiers killed unarmed demonstrators'
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The Independent Online

British forces gave civilian leaders in the southern Iraq town of Majar al-Kabir 48 hours to hand over gunmen who killed six British military police officers, a municipal official said today.

British forces gave civilian leaders in the southern Iraq town of Majar al-Kabir 48 hours to hand over gunmen who killed six British military police officers, a municipal official said today.

British military officials met seven members of the city's administrative council in the nearby town of Amarah, seeking the killers' surrender, said Qassem Nimeh, an official in the mayor's office in Majar al-Kabir.

There were contradiictory versions of what sparked the shooting. Local police said today that residents of the small township, furious over the deaths of civilians during a demonstration, had shot and killed the military policemen.

Armed Iraqis killed two of the British soldiers at the scene of the demonstration – in front of the mayor's office – and then stormed a police station and killed four other British soldiers after a two–hour gunbattle, a pair of Iraqi policemen said.

But Tony Blair told MPs that British forces had been trying to disarm Iraqis in the area.

"There had been problems in relation to that and that may form part of the background to it but at the moment it is simply too early to say.

The Prime Minister told the Commons that the dead soldiers had been doing "an extraordinary and heroic job in trying to bring normal and decent life to people in Iraq."

He said: "I would point out there are some 14,000 British troops in theatre – 10,000 in Iraq. We are also now bringing in forces from other countries as well.

"Indeed over the next few weeks 19 or 20 different countries will be participating and the total force from those countries will be several thousand men.

"So we are trying to make sure that at every level we have the troop requirements that we need.

"I spoke to the Chief of the Defence Staff this morning who says to me that the local commanders believe they have sufficient troops on the ground at the present time.

"But should they require more troops of course we will make sure that those troops are available."

The incident sparked a review of forces in southern Iraq, with Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon saying that troops may resume wearing helmets and body armour – like their American counterparts.

In a second incident yesterday, eight British soldiers were wounded, three of them seriously in a fierce firefight between Iraqis and British troops.

The day's violence began when British soldiers fired rubber bullets – and then live ammunition – at a demonstrators in Majar al–Kabir who were protesting against the presence of British forces in the city, said Abu Zahraa, a 30–year–old local vendor.

He said the British had formally agreed a day earlier to let local police patrol the city.

Accounts differed on where the four Iraqi civilians were killed. Some said British soldiers killed all four during the demonstration; another account said two unarmed protesters were killed during the demonstration and two other civilians were killed in the gun battle at the police station.

After the deaths at the scene of the demonstration, angry townspeople fetched weapons from their homes, converged on the police station and attacked British soldiers, said Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman in the town.

One British soldier was shot and killed at the station's doorway; the other three died after Iraqi gunmen stormed the station and cornered them in a single room, said Salam Mohammed, aged 30, member of a municipal security force.

A British military spokesman, Captain Adam Marchant–Wincott, said he could not confirm the Iraqi witness accounts. He said, however, that it was possible that there had been an agreement between British forces and local police allowing the locals to take over security for the city.

Capt. Marchant–Wincott said he could not say whether the British forces had fired at demonstrators but added that they would do so only if their lives were threatened.

Mr Faddhel said that there were about two dozen Iraqi policemen at the station who fled through a window during the gunbattle. Two were wounded. He said the Iraqi police had asked the British troops to leave with them but the British insisted on staying.

In another attack, an oil pipeline was sabotaged yesterday day near Hadithah, 150 miles north–west of Baghdad, an Iraq oil ministry official said.

Television reports showed oil flooding into palm groves and the Euphrates River. The official said saboteurs broke valves on the pipeline, causing the oil to spill.

It was the latest in a series of attacks against Iraq's power and oil infrastructure that has set back reconstruction efforts and increased blackouts in Baghdad.

The violence at the police station came in the mostly Shiite south, where resentment toward Saddam Hussein's government had been strong. There had been no substantial attacks there against American or British forces since the end of the war, and British troops in the city of Basra had felt secure enough to stop wearing helmets and flak jackets. That policy is now under review.

Mr Hoon said commanders were investigating whether the earlier deaths and the later ambush were connected.

Forty–two British troops have died – 19 in accidents – since the war began March 20. Britain had suffered no confirmed combat deaths since 6 April.