Handover Of 500 Iraqi Prisoners Under Way
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Five hundred more Iraqi prisoners of war traveled to a remote border crossing Sunday and were boarding a dozen buses for return to their homeland, an official said.
Sunday’s repatriation would bring to nearly 2,000 the number of Iraqis returned since the Persian Gulf War halted two weeks ago. About 60,000 Iraqis were taken prisoner, but civil war and the clearing of minefields in Iraq has been blamed for the slow repatriation.
Sunday’s prisoner return took place close to the Saudi desert outpost of Arar, 650 miles northwest of Dhahran, said Pascal Daudin, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Riyadh.
Daudin said the released prisoners were being driven across the border in a fleet of 12 buses after earlier traveling to Arar in Saudi buses from a camp about 150 miles away from Riyadh.
He declined to give further information about the location of the Saudi camp, such as whether it was north, south, east or west of the capital.
About 1,400 Iraqi POWs had earlier been repatriated. Daudin said he expected another 500 to be handed over within the next few days.
The spokesman said Red Cross officials questioned all 500 prisoners before they left the Saudi camp to make sure that they wanted to go home, and were in the process of questioning them again for the last time as the handover proceeded in the desert.
″We questioned them before they got into the Saudi buses out of the camp, then we will give them one last chance at the border,″ Daudin said in a telephone interview.
Last week, one of the prisoners slated for an earlier return of POWs balked at the last minute and refused to go home. His 499 comrades crossed the border.
There has been concern that thousands of Iraqis captured by the allies might refuse repatriation for fear of reprisals by their government.
The tempo of repatriations has speeded up in the past few days, after a four-day delay that Western sources attributed to the chaos in southern Iraq, where several cities were engulfed in rebellion against President Saddam Hussein.
The Red Cross said the handovers were slowed at the request of Iraq, which said its army needed to clear mines from desert roads in the area of the handover.
On Wednesday, Iraq handed over the remains of 13 allied soldiers killed in the war - five Americans and eight Britons. Forty-five allied POWs - all that Iraq said it had in custody - have been repatriated, including 21 Americans.
The return of allied remains and repatriation of POWs were two conditions for a permanent cease-fire spelled out by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. forces commander, in a March 3 meeting with Iraqi officers.