"The minister is following this case closely and has given the order to hunt these people down and punish them," Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf, an interior ministry spokesman, said.
 
"The police chief in Baquba has collected intelligence information and the operation is under way."

 

'Execution'

The Iraqi defence ministry announced separately on Saturday that it had killed three "terrorists" and arrested nine more in Baquba, but it was not clear whether this was related to the killings.

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The Sunni group posted a statement on the internet late on Friday saying that they had killed the members of the interior ministry they had seized the evening before.

 

"The Islamic State in Iraq has given the infidel government of [Nuri] al-Maliki 24 hours to respond to its demands... but it did not give any importance for their blood," a statement said.

"We will show the film of the implementation [of the execution ruling] soon, God willing."

An earlier statement said 18 men were being held in retaliation for the alleged rape of a Sunni woman by three members of the Shia-dominated police.

The group had threatened to kill the hostages within 24 hours if the Iraqi government did not hand over officers accused in the rape case, and release all Sunni women held in Iraqi prisons.


Khalaf said that the idea that the men had been killed in response to the alleged rape was "propaganda" and said he was optimistic that the killers would be caught.