Shiite al-Sadr group calls for release of CBS journalists

( dpa ) - A Shiite group loyal to radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called Tuesday for the release of a British journalist and his Iraqi interpreter, who are believed to have been abducted in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

An official in the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr in Basra, Harith al-Azari, condemned all attacks on journalists and called for the release of the journalists, Voices of Iraq VOI news agency reported.

Foreign civilians, particularly journalists, are not part of the confrontation involving Iraq's nationalist powers against the forces of occupation, al-Azari told VOI.

Al-Sadr suspended the activities of the al-Mahdi Army militia, which was responsible for much of the violence in southern Iraq. But his loyalists are still jockeying for power with other Shiite factions in the south, especially in Basra.

Joint British-Iraqi forces early Tuesday launched search operations in villages on the outskirts of Basra for the missing reporter and interpreter, security sources and witnesses said.

British and Iraqi army forces were conducting raids and searches in Karmat Ali and Bani Hussein, west of the British base at Basra Airport, security sources told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

British troops were also seen in areas inside Basra, 550 kilometres south of Baghdad, for the first time since they pulled out of the city in December, according to witnesses.

US television network CBS announced Monday that the two reporters working for CBS News in Basra were missing.

The network did not name the reporters and said efforts were underway to find them.

"CBS News has been in touch with the families and asks that their privacy be respected," a network's spokeswoman said.

The reporter's wife told Britain's The Independent she hoped he would be released soon.

The Foreign Office in London said it was investigating the reported incident.

Last year, 47 journalists and nine media assistants were killed in Iraq, according to the Reporters Sans Frontieres press freedom group.

Meanwhile at least four members of Iraq's US-backed Awakening Council were wounded Tuesday when militants launched an attack in the city of al-Ramady, 110 kilometres west of Baghdad.

Security sources told VOI that militants attacked a leader of the Awakening Council in the main road northern al-Khalidiya, some 20 kilometres east of al-Ramady. The attack also injured three of the chief's security guards.

Clashes between elements of the Awakening Council and security forces were reported to have lasted for 10 minutes prior to the attack.

The Awakening Councils are local tribal police squads funded by the US military in restive Sunni-dominated areas to fight extremist insurgents with links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. They are targets for their main enemies in the al-Qaeda.

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