Iraq Ups Ante on Hostages : Freedom for 237 Held Up by Baghdad
In a calculated move to delay their release, Iraq today upped the ante for 237 British, French, American, Australian and Japanese women and children it holds under army guard by “requesting” that Britain and France allow Iraq’s state-owned airline landing rights to fly the hostages home.
Baghdad also asked the two governments to permit the jetliners to pick up Iraqi passengers who the government claimed had been “stranded” in Paris and London when Iraq’s overseas assets were frozen and the United Nations imposed what a spokesman today called “the brutal American-led embargo against Iraq.”
Naji Al-Hadithi, a spokesman for President Saddam Hussein, stopped short of calling the Iraqi position a “demand,” repeating several times that it was merely a “request.”
But he made it clear that, for the time being, Iraq was offering no other alternatives to evacuate the women and children, who were freed amid great fanfare from the strategic military installations where they were being held after Hussein’s surprise Tuesday night order.
If permission is granted, the flights would technically violate the U.N. embargo and represent a public-relations victory for Baghdad, Western diplomats here said, adding that it would be difficult to restrict the cargo the Iraqi jets would carry on their return trip.
Al-Hadithi stressed, however, that the “request” does not cover the hundreds and perhaps thousands of other foreign women and children in Iraq and Kuwait who were not taken from their homes to strategic sites but were barred from leaving the country. They may leave any time and by any means they wish, he said, adding that the Foreign Ministry has yet to determine whether Western airliners will be allowed to pick them up.
The 237, however, remain prisoners of the Iraqi government. Officially listed by Al-Hadithi today as 132 Britons, 66 Japanese, 19 French, 14 Americans, two Australians and four of other nationalities, the group is being held under armed guard at Baghdad’s Monsour Melia Hotel.
The hotel, a drab, beige monolith of concrete on the banks of the Tigris River, is guarded day and night by Iraqi soldiers carrying assault rifles and machine guns. The hostages are confined to several top floors of the hotel, which they are permitted to leave only for three daily meals and a two-hour morning swim in the hotel pool.
Several of the women complained about the hotel food during their one-hour meeting with the foreign press Thursday.
“The children in that restaurant are coming down with dysentery,” shouted a near-hysterical British woman who did not give her name. “The children are not getting the right diet.”
Also today, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz met twice at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan. No immediate progress was reported, but the negotiators were expected to meet again Saturday.
A senior Jordanian official said there was a “strong possibility” that Perez de Cuellar will travel to Baghdad for talks, but the U.N. chief later said he did not think that was “in the cards.”