Iraqi soldiers free British journalist

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- For more than two months, British journalist Richard Butler sat with a hood over his head wondering what his kidnappers in Basra were planning.

Yesterday, gunshots rang through the house where he was held. There were shouts. The door to his room burst open, and Butler tore off his hood to see Iraqi army soldiers.

They were as surprised to see Butler as he was to see them, according to Iraqi military officials, who described yesterday's rescue of the freelancer, under contract with CBS News, as a lucky find during a search of a house for illegal weapons.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said Iraqi forces stumbled upon Butler about noon while conducting the search as part of an offensive against militias in Basra. He said "the elements" responsible for abducting Butler and his Iraqi translator Feb. 10 had been captured but gave no further details.

Butler's translator was freed Feb. 13 unharmed, but Butler had not been heard from since his abduction. It was not immediately clear who the kidnappers were and whether he had been held for ransom or strictly for political purposes.

His release came as the U.S. military indicated that the offensive in Basra, which began March 25, had entered a new phase in which the heaviest fighting was over. A military statement said forces were focusing on clearing areas no longer under militia control and scouring them for weapons caches.

"Our forces now control most of Basra," said Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Since the offensive, at least 15 police or soldiers in Basra have been killed and 400 wounded, a ministry official said yesterday. The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said 400 alleged militants had been killed and hundreds wounded.

The number of civilian casualties nationwide from the fighting that erupted after the offensive has been put at more than 600, mostly in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. Sadr City is the stronghold of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has accused Iraqi and U.S. forces of unfairly targeting it in Basra and elsewhere.

Al-Sadr demanded yesterday that the Iraqi government reinstate more than 1,300 soldiers and police who refused to fight during the offensive. Iraqi officials said Sunday the deserters had been fired and face court-martial.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of three American soldiers yesterday. Two were killed when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, and the third died in Salahuddin province.

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