BAGHDAD - Iraqi security officers stormed al-Jazeera's Baghdad offices and sealed the newsroom with red wax at the weekend after the US-backed interim government banned the Arabic television station from broadcasting in the country.
The raid followed a decision by the prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to close the station temporarily in August because of its apparent failure to support the US occupation. Officials said al-Jazeera had now been shut indefinitely because it had ignored the original ban.
Several armed police officers were posted outside and in the lobby of Baghdad's Swan Lake Hotel, where al-Jazeera has its offices, yesterday.
"We have been told not to let anyone in; we are just following orders," Captain Abu Jibal told the Guardian.
"If you take any photos we'll arrest you," he said.
Robert Menard of Reporters Without Borders said the ban contradicted "Iraqi officials' statements on democracy".
Other media groups, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, have criticized the earlier ban.
Al-Jazeera said the decision was "reminiscent of the way certain other regimes have behaved".
Last month Iraqi police seized around 60 journalists from a hotel in Najaf, including reporters from the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Times and Telegraph, and took them to the police station at gunpoint. Asked later whether he condemned the incident, Mr Allawi refused to answer.
Yesterday an al-Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ballout, said his station had abided by the original temporary ban and had used agency footage from Iraq, like other media groups.
The future of al-Jazeera's 100 reporters and other workers in Iraq was unclear, he said. "We have never compromised our editorial values. We believe that what happens in Iraq is very important for the whole Arab world and needs to be covered comprehensively, objectively and in a balanced way."
The closure came during a weekend of further violence across the country.
At least three Iraqis were killed yesterday and more than a dozen wounded as American troops renewed their attack on the northern town of Tal Afar, near Mosul. On Saturday, at least 13 people died, including women and children, and 60 were injured as clashes erupted across the town. Fighters opened fire on an American helicopter, forcing it to make an emergency landing. Officials said US and Iraqi forces were trying to flush out a militant cell smuggling arms and people from Syria.
Around 500 Iraqis were also arrested on Saturday in the Sunni town of Latifiya, 40 miles south of Baghdad, where the French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were kidnapped last month.
France's government said yesterday it remained hopeful they would be freed, although its foreign minister, Michel Barnier, had returned empty handed from a Middle East mission intended to secure their release.
"We have serious reasons to believe both of them are in good health and that a favorable outcome is possible," said Mr Barnier.
The body of an Egyptian hostage, kidnapped on August 27, was found on Saturday near the town of Baiji, 112 miles north of Baghdad. Police said it bore signs of torture.
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers Limited