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British Demand Surrender of Iraqi Gunmen

British Demand Surrender of Iraqi Gunmen

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MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq (AP) -- British forces were hunting down gunmen who killed six British military police after a violent demonstration that left four Iraqi civilians dead, a British Army official said Wednesday.

Iraqi gunmen -- enraged by the deaths of their countrymen at the hands of British soldiers -- killed two British military policemen during the demonstration and then stormed a police station, killing four more, local police and witnesses said.

"We hope that we'll be able to bring those who are guilty of these attacks to justice," L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.

British military officials provided few details on the violence, which came on the same day another ambush wounded eight British troops, three of them seriously. At least four Iraqis were killed and 15 injured in the clashes.

British military officials seeking the surrender of the military policemen's killers met with seven members of the city's administrative council in nearby Amarah on Wednesday and gave the ultimatum, said Qassem Nimeh, an official in the mayor's office in Majar al-Kabir.

Nimeh also said that British forces gave civilian leaders 48 hours to hand over the gunmen who killed the British soldiers, but he did not say how they would respond if the attackers were not handed over. Local religious officials blared the ultimatum from loudspeakers atop cars in the city.

But a British Army spokeswoman, Capt. Gemma Hardy, later denied that such an ultimatum had been issued.

"That is absolutely categorically not the case," Hardy said. "The whole situation is being investigated. We are actively seeking them."

No British troops were seen in or around the town Wednesday.

The violent demonstration -- the second in two days -- apparently was sparked by soldiers' searches for heavy weapons in villagers' homes, said Abu Zahraa, a 30-year-old local vendor.

"This angered the people because they went into women's rooms," Zahraa said. "The people considered it an invasion of privacy."

A four-hour demonstration at the mayor's office was followed by a two-hour gun battle at the police station. Demonstrators threw rocks, and about a dozen British troops fired back with rubber bullets before switching to live ammunition, witnesses said.

But British Army Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt told Sky News TV the attack at Majar al-Kabir was unprovoked.

"The six military policemen who were trying to retrain the local police were murdered, as far as we're aware," McCourt said Wednesday in Basra. "The enemies of peace have claimed that the United Kingdom forces are conducting violent searches of Arab homes and have not respected property. This is simply not true."

The violence at Majar al-Kabir, a town about 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, came in a mostly Shiite region that had seen no substantial attacks against U.S. or British forces since the war ended. British troops in the area had felt so secure that they had stopped wearing helmets and flak jackets.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told lawmakers that the region around Amarah was tense because British soldiers had tried to disarm locals who routinely carried weapons, including machine guns.

"In this particular province ... there is a background to do with attempts by British forces to make sure that the local population, who regularly carried machine guns and small firearms, were disarmed," the prime minister said. "There have been problems in relation to that and that may form part of the background to it."

Blair also warned that supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party remained active, especially in the central and western parts of Iraq, where at least 18 U.S. soldiers have been killed in attacks since May 1.

Also Wednesday, a Pentagon official said he could not confirm a report in London's Daily Mirror newspaper that said coalition forces captured former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who gained infamy early in the war for his bombastic -- and clearly false -- anti-American pronouncements.

The Daily Mirror said al-Sahhaf was arrested in Baghdad on Monday night. Pentagon spokesman Col. Jay DeFrank said Central Command had no information on him being in U.S. custody.

"I'm not totally dismissing it, but right now we have no official confirmation that it's true," DeFrank said.

The latest violence sparked a review of Britain's forces in southern Iraq, with Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon saying Wednesday that Britain could send more soldiers to Iraq and require them to resume wearing helmets and body armor -- like their American counterparts.

"My absolute priority is the safety and security of British forces. Already, an urgent review is under way to ensure their safety," Hoon told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "Depending on the results of that review ... we have significant forces available should it be necessary. Many thousands, certainly."

Witnesses differed on where the four Iraqi civilians were killed. Some said British soldiers killed all four during the demonstration. Another account said two unarmed protesters were killed during the demonstration and two other civilians were killed in the gun battle at the police station.

After the demonstration, angry townspeople fetched weapons from their homes and converged on the police station, said Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman in the town.

One British soldier was shot and killed at the station's doorway; the three others were slain after Iraqi gunmen stormed the station and cornered them in a single room, said Salam Mohammed, 30, member of a municipal security force.

On Wednesday, the station bore the marks of a large gunbattle, with walls pocked full of bullet holes. Broken glass and blood stains covered the floor.

The mayor's office also showed signs of a siege, with grenade shrapnel in a bathroom and damage from an explosion on a sidewalk in front.

A British military spokesman, Capt. Adam Marchant-Wincott, said he could not confirm the Iraqi witness accounts. He said he could not say whether the British forces had fired at demonstrators but added that they would do so only if their lives were threatened.

Faddhel said there were about two dozen Iraqi policemen at the station who fled through a window during the gun battle. Two were wounded. Faddhel said the Iraqi police asked the British military police to flee with them but the British insisted on staying.

In the al-Zahrai Hospital in nearby Amarah, Dr. Mohammed al-Sudani said 10 Iraqi civilians were treated for gunshot wounds after the violence, including four children and a critically injured woman who was shot in the head and transferred to a hospital in Basra.

Maitham Abbas, a 12-year-old boy, said he was shot in the shoulder as he stood in front of his school.

"I saw the blood and fainted. I fell on the ground," Abbas said, sitting on his hospital bed, his shoulder and arm in a bandage.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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