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At Least 20 Killed After Clashes In Al-Najaf

4 April 2004 -- Some 20 people died and more than 100 were injured in clashes between Iraqi protesters and Spanish-led coalition troops in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf today.

The Spanish Defense Ministry says four El Salvadoran soldiers were among the dead. The El Salvadorans are under Spanish command.

The crowd had gathered to protest the alleged detention by Spanish forces of Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, a senior aide of Shi'a Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Spanish troops in Al-Najaf have denied arresting the aide, who often speaks out against the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, condemned the violence.

"A group of people in Najaf have crossed the line, and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated. This will not be tolerated by the coalition. This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people. And this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces," Bremer said.

Massud Barzani, the rotating president of Iraq's Governing Council, also condemned followers of al-Sadr for resorting to violence.

It is not immediately clear how the clash started. Some witnesses say Spanish-led troops fired on the crowd as protesters tried to enter a coalition base on the edge of the city. But a Spanish spokesman says armed demonstrators initiated the gunfire.

There has also been violence in Baghdad today. Security forces reportedly opened fire on a Shi'a protest in the city center. Few details are available yet.