BASRA (Reuters) â€” Angry crowds attacked a British tank with petrol bombs and rocks in Basra on Monday after Iraqi authorities said they had detained two British undercover soldiers in the southern city for firing on police.
Two Iraqis were killed in the violence, an interior ministry official said.
An Iraqi official in Iraq’s second largest city said the British military had informed him that the men were undercover soldiers and that an Iraqi judge was questioning them.
“They were driving a civilian car and were dressed in civilian clothes when a shooting took place between them and Iraqi patrols,” the official told Reuters.
“We are investigating and an Iraqi judge is on the case questioning them.”
Reuters photographs showed one of the two men with a bandage on his head. Police and interior ministry officials said the men were wearing traditional Arab headdress for their undercover mission. Mohammad Abadi, an official in the Basra governorate, said the two men looked suspicious to police.
“A policeman approached them and then one of these guys fired at him. Then the police managed to capture them,” Abadi told reporters.
“They refused to say what their mission was. They said they were British soldiers and [suggested] to ask their commander about their mission,” he added. Reuters Television footage showed the tank trying to reverse away from trouble after it came under attack, apparently from petrol bombs as a crowd gathered around it.
Within moments flames emerged from the top of the tank, although it was not clear if the vehicle itself was on fire or if the flames came from materials burning on top of the tank.
One soldier climbed out of the vehicle’s hatch and jumped clear of it, as the crowd pelted him with stones.
A witness said people drove through the streets of Basra with loud-hailers demanding that the undercover Britons remain in detention and be sent to jail.
British military authorities in Basra said they were investigating the incident.
Basra, capital of the Shiite south, has been relatively stable compared with central Iraq, where Sunni Arab insurgents have killed thousands of Iraqi and US forces, officials and civilians with suicide attacks, roadside bombs and shootings.
Britain said on Sunday it would if necessary increase the number of troops in Iraq as fears grew that the country was sliding towards civil war.
Britain, the main ally of the United States in Iraq, has about 8,500 soldiers in the country and has frequently said its soldiers will stay until the Iraqi government asks them to leave.