Troops raid slum, seek information on missing Britons

5 were abducted from government office a day earlier

May 31, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops raided Baghdad's Sadr City slum yesterday, a day after five British citizens were kidnapped from a nearby government building in an assault that the foreign minister said bore the hallmarks of a militia strike.

Two Iraqis working for the U.S. Embassy also were kidnapped yesterday, and at least 48 Iraqis were killed in other violence across Iraq. Among them were two journalists.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in a roadside bombing yesterday, and a noncombat death of a soldier the previous day.

The joint forces sealed off parts of the vast Shiite slum that is a bastion of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia during the early morning and went into homes to demand information about the missing Britons, residents said.

The U.S. military would not say whether the raids were related to the kidnapping.

Eight suspects were detained and one wounded during the raids, the U.S. military said. Gunfire erupted during one of the raids, and two men sleeping on their rooftops because of the heat were killed, Iraqi police said. Four other people were injured.

Dozens of men in Iraqi police uniforms seized the five Britons, including a computer expert and four security guards, Tuesday from the Finance Ministry's administrative building and sped off in what appeared to be police vehicles, headed toward Sadr City.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said yesterday that the raid was a "professional job" by people who appeared to have inside information.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees police, detained about 16 guards who had offered little or no resistance to the kidnappers, Zebari said.

He confirmed that a number of raids had been conducted in Sadr City to search for the kidnap victims. But he said there was no firm evidence linking the militia to the abductions.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, in Berlin for a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers, said British officials were working closely with Iraqi authorities to secure the swift release of the hostages.

"This is clearly a very distressing time for all concerned," she said. "Foreign Office officials are offering help and assistance to the next of kin. It is not sensible at this stage to speculate on what might have happened."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking from Sierra Leone, said: "We know the dangers and challenges there, but we shouldn't let those that are prepared to use kidnapping and terror succeed."

In other developments, Iraq's three northern Kurdish provinces were officially handed over to Iraqi security control at a ceremony in Irbil. Iraqi authorities now have responsibility for seven of the country's 18 provinces.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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