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The US military said yesterday it was investigating after four Iraqi detainees died and another six were injured when US troops fired on a crowd to put down a riot at a prison camp in southern Iraq on Monday.
The riot broke out after midday in one of the 10 compounds at Camp Bucca, near Basra, following a "routine search for contraband", the military said.
It spread to three other compounds and detainees were "throwing rocks and fashioning weapons from materials inside their living areas." There were 2,900 prisoners in the four compounds, out of 5,300 in the camp. "Guards attempted to calm the increasingly volatile situation using verbal warnings and, when that failed, by use of non-lethal force," the military said.
"After about 45 minutes of escalating danger, lethal force was used to quell the violence."
No Americans were seriously injured during the 45-minute riot, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said.
"We still have no clear motive for the disturbances and are awaiting a full report," said Col Johnson, a spokesman for the US military detentions operation in Iraq.
Yesterday Iraq's human rights minister, Bakhtiar Amin, said two US soldiers had opened fire on the detainees. "If there is a mistake, then those in charge should be brought to account," Mr Amin said. "If we are convinced there was no justification... then we want them to be tried."
Iraqi officials had been sent to investigate. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, threatened retaliation for the killings in an internet statement titled "About the Muslim prisoners in Basra". "What was the fault of defenceless prisoners ... that you should treat them like this?" the statement said. "Tyrants of the age, we will not let these crimes of yours pass - we will settle the score."
Col Johnson said the guards were from a recently arrived reserve unit, the 105th Military Police Battalion, based in Asheville, North Carolina.
He said it was the largest prison death toll since the US invasion of Iraq. The military investigation should last about a week, he said.
Two US soldiers have pleaded guilty to charges of abusing Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.ž
Sergeant Javal Davis on Tuesday admitted to stomping on the fingers and toes of a group of seven bound and hooded prisoners in November 2003.
Other guards then undressed the prisoners and stacked them into a naked human pyramid.
In a separate case heard at the same base in Texas, military intelligence soldier Specialist Roman Krol pleaded guilty to pouring water on prisoners as they crawled naked on the floor and throwing a football at them.
The military judge sentenced him to 10 months in prison, reduced his rank to private and gave him a bad conduct discharge.