Iraq: Powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Basra condemns journalists' kidnapping

Eds: PMs.

By HAMID AHMED

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office on Tuesday condemned the kidnapping of two CBS journalists in the southern city of Basra, while Iraqi police said an intensive search was under way for the men.

Iraqi police and witnesses said the kidnapping occurred Sunday morning when about eight masked gunmen wielding machine guns stormed the Sultan Palace Hotel and seized a British reporter and his Iraqi interpreter. A security official said one man had been detained in connection with the kidnapping.

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has seen fierce fighting between rival Shiite militias as part of a power struggle in the oil-rich south.

The Sadrists were quick to distance themselves from the disappearance of the journalists.

"We condemn the kidnappings of journalists, and we demand the release of the British journalist and the Iraqi interpreter," Harith al-Edhari, a director of al-Sadr's office in Basra, told reporters. "Our office condemns such events and we call on security forces to help in their release."

The U.S. television network CBS said Monday that two journalists working for it were missing in Basra, a predominantly Shiite city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

An official in the Basra security operations room, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said authorities had launched an intensive search and had arrested a man suspected of involvement in the kidnapping in an overnight raid.

Police, meanwhile, had cordoned off the hotel in central Basra as they combed the building for evidence.

CBS did not identify the journalists but said all efforts were under way to find them. It requested "that others do not speculate on the identities of those involved" until more information was available.

"CBS News has been in touch with the families and asks that their privacy be respected," the network added in a brief statement from its headquarters in New York.

The British military turned over responsibility for the southern province to Iraqis in December, but maintains forces near Basra. The military deferred questions to Britain's Foreign Office, which said only that it was looking into the matter.

"We're aware that Western citizens have been reported missing in Iraq, and it's a matter we're looking into with some urgency," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, speaking anonymously in line with government policy.

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "deeply concerned for the safety of our colleagues, and hope they are located swiftly and able to resume their important work covering this critical story."

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said: "Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists and the deadliest conflict for the press in recent history. Journalists face incalculable risks in order to bring us the news about what is happening on the ground there."