By Emma Henry and agencies The Telegraph
Last Updated: 3:09pm GMT 08/12/2006
Hundreds of British troops have carried out a huge pre-planned operation targeting five rogue militia leaders in southern Iraq.
More than 7,000 British troops are based in southern Iraq
A force of 800 British and 200 Danish troops seized the men and discovered arms including artillery shells wired up for making roadside bombs in the largest mission to take place since the 2003 invasion.
The pre-dawn raids took place in the northern al-Hartha district of Basra, home to a number of rival Shia militias.
A predominantly Danish force struck from the north while an amphibious assault team crossed the Shatt al-Arab waterway and Challenger main battle tanks advanced from the south, Maj Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said. Helicopters and jets supported the operation.
British military spokesman Maj Charlie Burbridge said: "This was a difficult and complex operation. It was designed to target criminals who have been involved in murder, kidnappings and attacks on multi-national forces."
The troops, which were drawn mainly from 19 Light Brigade, targeted several addresses north of the city at around 3am local time. Commanders assembled a force of Warrior armoured vehicles, Challenger tanks and boats to carry out the raids.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "It is a measure of the importance of the men who were targeted that they were expected to be armed and protected by bodyguards; hence the potency of the force.
"The operation lasted several hours and many of the soldiers did not return to base until after dawn." Maj Burbridge told BBC News 24: "We have had to use overwhelming force to ensure our own protection to conduct that sort of operation."
There were no casualties among civilians or coalition troops, who came under intense small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, Maj Burbridge said. It was unclear whether any militants suffered any casualties
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "It was a large search and detention operation targeted against known individuals who were suspected of criminal activity, including attacks on multi-national forces and civilians."
US forces also claimed a sucess today as a result of an unrelated raid in Salahaddin province, north of Baghdad. The Americans said ground troops, supported from the air, killed 20 suspected al-Qa-eda militants and found weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests packed with explosives.
Local authorities, however, disputed that account. Police said innocent women and children were among the dead.