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Kidnapped UK journalist freed in Iraq

14/04/2008 - 17:38

Wisam Mohammed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A British journalist held for twomonths by kidnappers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra wasrescued on Monday by Iraqi forces sweeping through the city ina crackdown on militants, the Iraqi military said.

Richard Butler, a photographer working for the U.S. networkCBS, appeared in good health and high spirits after hisrelease. Unknown militants had seized him and his interpreterfrom their hotel in Basra, freeing the interpreter a few dayslater.

"The Iraqi army stormed the house and overcame my guardsand then burst through the door," said Butler, smiling broadlyand surrounded by Iraqi officials on Iraqiya state television."I had my hood on, which I had to have on all the time. Andthey shouted something at me and I pulled my hood off."

In a statement, CBS said: "We are incredibly grateful thatour colleague, Richard Butler, has been released and is safe."

Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji, commander of Iraqiarmed forces in Basra, said a special team had been set up tosearch for a policeman suspected of being behind thekidnapping.

Elements of Iraq's police force are often accused ofcooperating with militants.

But the rescue was a triumph for Iraqi security forces,embarrassed last month by a hasty crackdown against militantsin Basra that triggered fighting across the south and Baghdadwhile failing to dislodge masked militiamen from the streets.

The news came after a night of renewed clashes in Baghdad'sSadr City slum, the scene of intense street battles over thepast three weeks between security forces and militiamen loyalto Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The fighting has been more intense than at any time sincethe first half of 2007, thrusting the Iraq conflict back ontocentre stage of the U.S. presidential contest.

Furaiji, who was shown smiling widely on television withhis arm on the freed photographer's shoulder, told reportersIraqi forces searching for weapons had stumbled upon Butlerwhen they entered a house in Basra's central Jbela district.

"We were suspicious about a house with a guard standingoutside. We arrested the guard, entered the house and found theBritish journalist handcuffed and hooded," Furaiji said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 51 journalistshave been kidnapped in Iraq since 2004, with 12 of thosekilled.

It has called the war "the deadliest conflict forjournalists in recent history," with a total of 127 journalistsand 50 media support workers killed since 2003.

APACHE HELICOPTERS HUNT MILITANTS

In Baghdad, U.S. forces said they had killed six gunmen inan overnight battle in Sadr City, firing from M1 tanks andhelicopters at fighters who attacked a patrol withrocket-propelled grenades.

"We heard the sound of bombing and clashes after midnight.It lasted for around an hour and then stopped. American planeswere hovering in the sky until morning," said grocer AliSittar.

A senior U.S. military official who requested anonymitysaid Apache helicopters and drone aircraft were "loitering"around the clock above Sadr City, hunting militants who havefired rockets at the Green Zone government and diplomaticcompound.

In the slum, angry mourners carried a coffin containing thebody of a man killed in clashes through the streets. A hospitalsaid seven wounded casualties had arrived overnight. Residentsswept out the rubble from freshly damaged buildings.

Elsewhere in the capital, an explosion in central Baghdad'sTayaran Square killed five people and wounded nine, policesaid, and a roadside bomb attack on a U.S. patrol set a marketablaze.

U.S. commanders have criticised the planning of the Marchcrackdown in Basra, led personally by Shi'ite Prime MinisterNuri al-Maliki. The Iraqi government has sacked 1,300 soldiersand police involved in the operation for failing to fight.

In a statement issued on Monday, Sadr urged the governmentto reverse the decision, saying those who refused to fight hadonly been following orders from Shi'ite religious leaders.

The rescue of Butler could help Maliki make the case thathis Basra operation, which he has described as a crackdown oncriminal gangs, has not been a failure.

The kidnapping of Butler, one of the few Westerners whodared venture out in Basra without a military convoy, was asymbol of the rampant lawlessness in a city that controlsIraq's only port and 80 percent of its oil revenue.

(Writing by Peter Graff and Noah Barkin, Editing by DeanYates and Charles Dick)


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