By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
Last Updated: 11:31am BST 12/04/2007
British forces have hit back at Iraqi insurgents who killed six colleagues last week, by launching an operation in which they shot dead more than 20 gunmen of Basra's rogue militias.
Details of the assault emerged last night as the bodies of four soldiers killed by a roadside bomb on Thursday were put on flights back to the UK. They arrived at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire this morning for a repatriation ceremony.
The attack began when a battalion-size force was sent into one of the southern city's toughest terrorist strongholds, three miles from where four soldiers, including two women, were blown up in their Warrior armoured vehicle.
An armoured force of 400 troops from the 2Bn The Rifles and 2Bn The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, both of which suffered fatalities last week, entered the Shia Flats area on the western outskirts of Basra to search for hidden weapons. The district is notorious as one of the most dangerous in southern Iraq.
"We wanted to make quite clear there's nowhere in Basra we cannot go," a British commander told The Daily Telegraph yesterday. "We are prepared to be there in daylight and take whatever comes our way. We are not being bombed out or intimidated."
Initially there was no response as the troops began searching homes where they recovered some small arms. But then the atmosphere changed.
"It was all going very well but then there was a sense something bad was about to happen as we noticed children starting to speak into their mobile phones and point at us," the commander said. "At this stage it became clear that the militia was massing for some kind of attack."
As the troops took up defensive positions around their Warrior and Bulldog armoured vehicles, Iraqi gunmen carrying AK47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades could be seen scurrying along rooftops and down streets. It is believed ammunition and hundreds of weapons are hidden in the area and brought into the open at short notice when the British appear.
Intelligence sources also informed the troops on the ground that Shia terrorists were heading towards them from other parts of the city.
The battle began on Tuesday afternoon with numerous rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire hitting the British positions.
The soldiers from the Rifles and Duke of Lancaster's held off the attacks for more than two hours and shot a number of gunmen. There were no British casualties as they gradually fought their way back to their base at Basra Palace.
Coalition jets also made low flying passes to intimidate the enemy although they did not drop any bombs. During one skirmish two attackers, who fired grenades at a British position, were chased down and arrested. Both are likely to face charges.
Commanders believed that some of the dead might have been behind the ambush of a Warrior in which 2nd Lt Joanna Dyer, a close friend of Prince William at Sandhurst, and three other soldiers were killed. A sniper, possibly from Shia Flats, also killed two other soldiers earlier last week. "This was at a location where we believe those responsible for killing our people were almost certainly recruited from," a military source said.
During the battle an Iraqi policeman was shot by one of the militias. He later died.
No civilians are believed to have been killed in the fight, the military reported, although it could not rule out innocent casualties caught in the crossfire.
"While we may regret that such incidents have to take place, we will not allow militia gunmen to control parts of Basra," said Lt Col Kevin Stratford-Wright, the British military spokesman in southern Iraq.
"There are no 'no-go' areas for multi-national forces in Basra. Security is our responsibility and, in conjunction with the Iraqi security forces, we seek to provide as secure an environment as possible. This will inevitably involve taking on the rogue militia who blight the lives of people in Basra."
Official estimates put the number of Iraqis hit by British gunfire at 10 but other defence sources said that double that figure had been shot.