April 14, 2008 / 10:05 AM / 10 years ago

Kidnapped UK journalist freed in Iraq's Basra

* British journalist freed in Basra

* Fighting resumes in Sadr City

By Wisam Mohammed

BAGHDAD, April 14 (Reuters) - A British journalist held for two months by kidnappers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra was rescued on Monday by Iraqi forces sweeping through the city in a crackdown on militants, the Iraqi military said.

Richard Butler, a photographer on assignment for the U.S. network CBS, had been kidnapped from a hotel in the centre of the southern city in February.

"He is in good health. He is fine. He’s here with me," Iraqi Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari told Reuters by telephone from Basra.

Butler’s rescue was an apparent victory for Iraqi forces, embarrassed last month by a hasty crackdown against militants in Basra that triggered fighting across the south and Baghdad while failing to dislodge masked militiamen from the streets.

Basra has been quieter in recent days and the Iraqi forces have been conducting raids in militia-controlled neighbourhoods.

U.S. commanders have criticised the planning of the March crackdown, led personally by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. On Sunday the Iraqi government fired 1,300 soldiers and police for failing to stand and fight.

The crackdown has pitted Iraqi, U.S. and British forces against the Mehdi Army militia loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leading to Iraq’s heaviest fighting since the first half of 2007.

Fighting erupted in Baghdad’s Sadr City overnight after a day’s lull, dashing residents’ hopes of a let-up in clashes between U.S. and government troops and Mehdi Army gunmen who control the streets of the sprawling slum.

Angry mourners carried a coffin containing the body of a man killed in the clashes through the streets. A hospital said seven wounded casualties had arrived overnight. Residents swept out the rubble from freshly damaged buildings.

After three weeks trapped in the battle zone amid nightly bombardment, residents had hoped for a break in the fighting when the government lifted a vehicle blockade on Saturday. But a relatively quiet Sunday ended with more fighting overnight.

"We heard the sound of bombing and clashes after midnight. It lasted for around an hour and then it stopped. American planes were hovering in the sky until morning," said grocer Ali Sittar.

Elsewhere, an explosion in central Baghdad’s Tayaran Square killed five people and wounded nine, police said. (Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Dean Yates)

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