Free at last, about 500 foreign hostages, including 22 Americans, began flying home Saturday night, becoming the first to leave here following Saddam Hussein’s declaration of general amnesty for all foreigners in Iraq and Kuwait.
Another 400 or more Americans are expected to leave today, a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad said Saturday night.
A State Department-chartered Iraqi Airways 747, with 430 seats, is to fly from Baghdad to Kuwait city this morning to pick up Americans who have been hiding there since early August, including about 20 holed up at the U.S. Embassy.
Even though the Voice of America has been broadcasting news of the airlifts, U.S. diplomats here were concerned that some Americans in Kuwait may remain underground for fear of being taken captive by Iraqi troops--despite Baghdad’s apparent formal implementation of the amnesty program Friday.
Once all Americans are out of Kuwait, the State Department in Washington said Friday it will pull out the remaining eight embassy personnel from the besieged seaside compound.
Meanwhile, several jumbo jets from other countries with citizens stranded in Iraq and Kuwait were said to be en route to the Middle East, but those reports could not be immediately confirmed. A British Airways plane is already in Amman, Jordan.
In all, there are several thousand foreigners waiting to leave Iraq or Kuwait, diplomats here believe.
About 460 of those who left Saturday were Vietnamese contract laborers. Many of their watches and other personal effects were taken by Iraqi officials at the airport in Baghdad. Similar experiences had been reported by earlier refugees from other Third World nations.
About 40 Japanese hostages also departed Saturday. Their release had been announced last Monday.
An Iraqi jet carrying the Japanese hostages and a number of their wives stopped over in Amman, Jordan, late Saturday. A Japanese member of Parliament led the wives to Iraq to press Hussein to return their husbands.
The 22 freed Americans and one Briton left on a private jet owned by The Coastal Corp., a Houston gas and oil company that was one of Iraq’s best customers for crude oil before the invasion of Kuwait.
Its chairman, Oscar S. Wyatt, and John B. Connally, a former U.S. Treasury secretary and former governor of Texas, flew to Baghdad last Sunday on a private mission to seek the release of some hostages.
They met with Hussein on Wednesday and, after a 45-minute session at the presidential palace, the Iraqi president told them: “Your plane will not go home empty.”
The Texans also made an impassioned plea to Hussein to unconditionally release all foreign hostages, telling him that a general amnesty would be hailed around the world. They also said that his holding of “human shields” would not be a deterrent to a U.S.-led offensive against Iraq.
Connally and Wyatt also brought in 15 tons of medicine for the Iraqis. Connally is a Coastal board member.
Also departing aboard the company’s 180-seat plane were eight relatives of the hostages, who had arrived here separately Wednesday night to seek the release of their loved ones.
That the jet departed with so many empty seats angered many of the hostages and relatives left behind. They directed their frustration at both The Coastal Corp. and the U.S. Embassy here.
But there were no simple answers for them.
The snafu appeared to stem from the largely inevitable red tape and confusion as the hastily organized mass evacuation effort was being orchestrated.
Wyatt and Connally had hoped to return with a planeload and, indeed, Hussein had personally signed off on the release of about 100 hostages, they said.
But many of these people, who have been held as human shields at strategic and remote installations, could not be located and processed in time for the already much-delayed departure.
“These people were scattered at sites from hell to breakfast,” Connally said. “There were interminable delays, through no one’s fault. There just aren’t any set procedures yet. We’re kind of in the vanguard of this operation.”
Among those who did make the flight out was a human shield who was hastily driven to the airport from a dam more than four hours from Baghdad. The Texans late Friday night dispatched a driver to fetch him.
And then they continued working with Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials until 3 a.m. Saturday to collect others on the list.
Several of the freed U.S. hostages are said to have either medical problems of their own or ailing relatives back home. One is suffering from prostate cancer.
Many of the departing Americans said at Baghdad’s Saddam Hussein International Airport on Saturday night that they were leaving with deeply mixed emotions--happy to be going home for Christmas but sad for those who must wait a few more days or perhaps weeks before gaining their freedom.
A delegation of 18 relatives journeyed to Baghdad together, accompanied by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. They and other hostage relatives had been networking by telephone for many weeks, planning the rescue mission.
“It’s tough to be split up,” said Dawn Bazner, who with her husband, Kevin, is en route home to Palm Desert, Calif. “But I don’t know why we were on the list.”
Rosalind Brown, whose husband, Cecil, also was a human shield, said at the airport: “It’s going to be a good Christmas.”
But she also expressed her sorrow that the group had been so abruptly broken up.
The private Texas airlift initially was scheduled to leave early Saturday morning. But Connally and Wyatt delayed their departure several times as they, their aides, Iraqi officials and U.S. diplomats worked to cut through the ponderous Iraqi bureaucracy to get more Americans on the flight.
They said that Iraqi officials were “extremely cooperative and helpful.”
Times staff writer Daniel Williams, in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.