Iraqi Shias murdered in sectarian massacre

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The gunmen at the checkpoint were deliberate and methodical in their choice of targets, 26 people, including elderly men and teenage students, were taken out of three minibuses , lined up at the roadside and executed.

The massacre at Baqouba, in north east Iraq, was a particularly bloody episode in the country's savage sectarian war of attrition. Those killed were Shias along with two Kurds, the killers spared four passengers who were Sunnis.

The deaths were not the only casualties in the communal conflict yesterday. In Basra nine people were killed in a firefight when members of the region's overwhelmingly Shia police force surrounded a Sunni mosque. The siege had begun just hours after a suicide bombing at a market place in the city had killed 28 people and injured 62 others.

The sustained violence in the south had begun to escalate immediately after new prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had imposed a state of emergency in Basra and threatened to crack down with an "iron fist" on rival Shia militias vying for control.

The deaths in Baqouba occurred after the minibuses arrived at the outskirts of the city from the nearby town of Qara Tappah.

Amomg those killed were 12 students on their way to take part in end of term examinations. The four Sunnis let go by the gunmen, also students, were being questioned by police.

According to witnesses some of the students attempted to run away. But they were dragged back to stand alongside others from the minibuses before being shot.

Communal violence has risen unremittingly since the bombing of a Shia shrine in February and Baqouba in Diyala province has been the scene of several attacks in the conflict.

A police spokesman said "The insurgents had set up a checkpoint in the Udhaim area. They did not spare anyone, those killed included men in their 70s and boys of 15 and 16."

In Basra the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars claimed the attack on the Al-Arab mosque, which left it damaged and partly burnt, was a deliberate attack by the police and nine people who died had arrived to protect the building.

The police insisted that they had received intelligence that armed men were hiding in the mosque which had also come to their attention while investigating the market bombing. They also claimed that two vehicles packed with explosives were discovered behind the mosque.

There were conflicting reports yesterday about the fate of four Russian embassy employeed kidnapped in Baghdad.A senior Interior Ministry official Lt. Colonel Falah al-Mohamedawi said that the Russian Embassy employees had been freed in a commando raid, but this was later officially denied by the Ministry.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari spoke with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Saltanov, and told him that the Iraqi president, prime minister and law-enforcement authorities were taking "active efforts to ensure the quickest release of four abducted Russian embassy workers."

Iraq's Parliament was adjourned yesterday after Prime Minister al-Maliki failed yet again to reach any consensus on candidates for the crucial ministers who will run the country's armed forces and police. Mr Al-Maliki had threatened to present his own nominees to parliament if political blocs fail to agree on candidates.

Deputy Parliament.Speaker Khalid al-Atiya, a Shiite, said that due to the large number of candidates and failure to reach any agreement, the political parties decided "to give the prime minister another chance to have more negotiations".