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Returning Kuwaitis Tell Grim Tales

March 8, 1991

KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ The first of the estimated 30,000 Kuwaitis held prisoner in Iraq poured back across the border late Thursday, many cheering ″USA″ and telling of the horrors of life in Iraqi military camps.

There were conflicting reports on the whereabouts of an estimated 30 detained journalists. Gian-Battista Bacchetta, the chief of a Red Cross mission in Kuwait, said the reporters could begin leaving Iraq on Friday.

But at the United Nations, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, contradicted Bacchetta.

″The reports were incorrect,″ Cornelio Sommaruga said after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. He said officials hadn’t been able to reach the city of Basra, where reporters are believed held.

More than 1,000 Kuwaitis came home late Thursday. As trucks filled with the released hostages rolled into the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, the Kuwaitis chanted ″USA 3/8 USA 3/8″

In interviews at the border by The Associated Press, they told tales of being packed like sardines in a military camp, drinking water from swamps, and eating sparse meals of rock-hard bread and bad rice.

″It was like hell,″ said Hami Jamal, a 27-year-old computer engineer who was kidnapped from his house by Iraqi troops on Feb. 21. ″We drank swamp water for days. And for what crimes? For being Kuwaitis.″

″They treated us like dogs, like chickens,″ said Mansoor Shehab, a 25- year-old electrical engineer.

A Bush administration official in Washington estimated the number of released Kuwaiti civilians at up to 2,000.

Kuwait claims that Iraqi troops abducted 30,000 Kuwaitis during Iraq’s 6 1/ 2 -month occupation of the oil-rich emirate.

Talks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, between the coalition forces and the Iraqis on Thursday were designed to iron out some of the specifics on the civilian release. Agreement in principal was reached in the first round of talks last Sunday.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the administration has been unable to confirm that the Western journalists would be released Friday, and there was no indication that they were among the civilians being released.

″We hold Iraq responsible for their safety. Unfortunately, it may not be that Iraq has them,″ said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. ″That’s one of the problems here. It’s not quite clear where they are or who’s in control of them. Apparently there are a lot of competing factions there.″

The journalists disappeared earlier in the week while heading toward the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where fierce fighting has been reported between loyalists of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and rebels who oppose him.

At the last U.S. checkpoint in southern Iraq near Safwan, two Iraqi officers showed up unannounced Thursday asking to talk to Red Cross officials about the Kuwaiti exchange. Lt. Col. Jim Stone of Ft. Riley, Kan., said the Iraqi officers ″did not mention journalists at all.″

″We expect them to return tomorrow (Friday) to continue coordinating with the Red Cross. From there, it’s up to the Red Cross,″ Stone told Associated Press reporter Edith M. Lederer. ″The Red Cross has to coordinate the transportation and the turnover.″

Bacchetta, head of the 12-member Red Cross delegation that has been working in Kuwait City for a week, said the Red Cross received a list of 29 journalists from the International Union of Journalists. He said he expected their release Friday.

He also said the Red Cross would soon request permission to visit an estimated 4,000 Palestinians jailed as suspected collaborators in Kuwait.

But Sommaruga said Red Cross representatives have not been able to reach Basra and, therefore, were unable to find out about the reporters.

″Certainly this is one of our real preoccupations,″ he said, ″and we will continue all our efforts in order to get news of them, to reach them and to help them return.″

The journalists reported missing included nine working for American publications - Todd Buchanan of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Chris Morris and Tony Suau of Time; and John A. Giordano and Ron Jacques, free-lance photographers from Saba Press Photos on assignment for U.S. News & World Report; Neal Conan of National Public Radio, Chris Hedges of The New York Times, and Greg Lamotte and Tyrone Edwards of the CNN television network.

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