BAGHDAD: A major offensive was underway early this morning in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" to free more than 150 hostages, mainly women and children.
US and Iraqi forces launched the raid on the central town of Madaen after Sunni insurgents threatened to kill the hostages in 24 hours unless all Shias left.
The insurgents overnight dragged the civilians from their homes, ordered the others out of town and dynamited a mosque - threatening a potentially inflaming sectarian divide. Troops last night surrounded the town after attempts failed to defuse the crisis peacefully.
Earlier, the number of hostages had been put at up to 60. A Shi'ite official in Baghdad said some of the Madaen hostages had been taken to two schools in the town and a mosque in the adjacent town of Salman Pak.
A growing number of families had been fleeing Madaen, about 40 km southeast of Baghdad, since the hostage standoff began, said the official. The crisis began when more than 100 masked militants drove through down, grabbing Shi'ite youth and old men, he said.
A resident reached by telephone said militants returned early yesterday, shouting through loud speakers that all Shi'ites must leave or the hostages would be killed.