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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Basra drama - how events unfolded
The two British soldiers being held in Iraq
British officials would not say if the two men were working under cover
Monday brought high drama in Basra, with the arrest of two soldiers, the storming by UK forces of the police station where they were held and their eventual release.

It was also a day of confusion, with a succession of fast-moving events and conflicting reports.

The BBC News website traces the sequence of events as they unfolded.

Tensions were already high in Basra on Monday morning following the detention on Sunday of a senior figure in the Shia Mehdi Army, suspected of being behind a series of attacks on British troops.

Then two British soldiers, reportedly dressed as Arabs and driving a civilian car, attracted the notice of police at a checkpoint.

According to the Iraqi authorities they refused to stop, instead allegedly firing at the officers, killing one and wounding another. This has not been confirmed by the Ministry of Defence.

After allegedly declining to reveal their mission, the men were arrested and taken to the main Basra police station.

Arrests

Basra officials said the men were working under cover, which the Ministry of Defence has not confirmed.

After learning of their arrest, the British military requested that they be handed over to coalition forces in accordance with agreed procedures.

British armoured vehicles under attack
British armoured vehicles were set alight

The Iraqi government in Baghdad apparently agreed and ordered the handover, but this seems to have been disregarded by the police.

With fears for the prisoners' safety mounting, British troops surrounded the police station, setting up a cordon.

Iraqi demonstrators also started to gather, demanding the soldiers be kept in detention and sent to jail. Violent clashes broke out.

The troops were pelted with stones and petrol bombs, attacked with rockets and their armoured vehicles were set alight, forcing them to withdraw.

Bloodstains

Photographs and video footage showing soldiers having to jump clear of the burning vehicles, one with his uniform ablaze, shocked viewers back in the UK.

Three soldiers were injured in the clashes - none seriously - and two civilians reportedly killed.

Iraqi police released pictures of two bearded men in seemingly bloodstained clothes - one with a bandaged head - who they said were the captured soldiers.

At 1630 BST, the British government issued a request that the faces of the two men be disguised by news outlets.

Soldier surrounded by flames
Images of a soldier with his uniform ablaze shocked UK viewers

But they continued to refuse to comment on claims the men were special forces or working under cover, saying only that they were negotiating with the Iraqi authorities for their release.

Later, witnesses and Iraqi officials reported that British forces had used armoured vehicles to smash down a wall at the police station to free the arrested troops in a dramatic rescue.

The Iraqi governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, condemned the action as "barbaric, savage and irresponsible".

Reports that as many as 150 Iraqi prisoners had also been freed were later denied by British and Basra authorities.

The British Embassy in Iraq confirmed the men had been freed and taken into British custody but gave no details of how this had been achieved.

Militants

But the MoD denied any knowledge of the police station being stormed, saying it understood the release had been negotiated.

It was not until a few hours later that the department admitted a wall at the police station had been demolished as troops tried to "collect" the captives, whose release had been negotiated with Iraqi authorities.

A spokesman said British troops had intervened after reports that militants had tried to spirit the men away as they were due to be released.

Finally, early on Tuesday morning, another version of events emerged.

Brigadier John Lorimer, commanding officer of 12 Mechanised Brigade in Basra, said he ordered troops to storm the police station after being told the prisoners had been handed to "militia elements".

The MoD said an armoured vehicle had been used to break down a section of the compound wall so troops could enter.

Questions

A search of the building confirmed they were not there, it added.

It is understood local police finally revealed their location at gunpoint, though no shots were said to have been fired.

The men were said to be in good health, but the incident has sparked concerns for the state of relations between British forces in Basra and the local police.

It has also raised questions about links between sections of the Basra police and the Mehdi Army militants.




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