At least 44 prisoners were killed in an overnight militant assault on a police station in the city of Baquba today amid continuing violence in Iraq, according to security and medical officials.
Accounts differed as to who was responsible for the killings. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's security spokesman said the prisoners were killed by insurgents carrying out the attack; but other officials said they were killed by security forces as they tried to escape.
Meanwhile, a government official confirmed that militants seized most of a key Shiite majority town in northern Iraq, in fighting that has killed dozens of civilians and combatants.
Security forces and civilian fighters still hold parts of Tal Afar, in Nineveh province, along a strategic corridor to Syria, according to deputy provincial council chief Nuriddin Qabalan.
Qabalan said militants controlled most of Tal Afar and the surrounding area, adding there were pockets of resistance, and that soldiers, policemen and residents held on to parts of the airport.
At least 50 civilians were killed in the violence, along with dozens of militants and members of the security forces, he said.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country over the last week, threatening to unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.
The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups that oppose what they say is oppression by Maliki. The UN human rights chief said forces allied with ISIL had almost certainly committed war crimes by executing hundreds of non-combatant men in Iraq over the past five days.
US and Iranian officials discussed the crisis in Vienna on the sidelines of separate negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program, the two sides each said. But both ruled out military cooperation.
Any joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Shi'ite Iran's 1979 revolution, a sign of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.