Iranian air strikes in and around the Iraqi port city of Basra have sent hundreds of foreigners fleeing south in search of safety in this small state on the Arabian Gulf.
U.S. officials, who set up a late-night crisis center in their embassy here to help Americans trying to flee the war in Iraq, said they had no idea yet how many U.S. citizens were among what they termed the "great flood" of foreign nationals -- Americans, British, Irish, West Germans and others -- reaching Kuwait's northern border with Iraq.
The officials said that despite reports of Americans killed in the air raids around Basra yesterday, they had no confirmation of any American deaths or injuries so far.
"All we're getting is a lot of rumors," said one American diplomat, "but we have no solid information yet."
Part of the problem stemmed from the apparent chaos at the Iraq border 80 miles north of here. In their rush to escape the air attacks, many refugees fled leaving their passports and other identifying papers behind them. r
Although both the Iraqi and Kuwaiti governments have agreed to waive normal visa and custom formalities, Western embassy officials who have been at the border for the past 16 hours have been swamped trying to provide the refugees with temporary papers.
"Our people up there have been so busy just trying to arrange for the refugees to get the necessary papers to allow them to come into Kuwait," said one U.S. diplomat, "that they haven't had time to report in on their precise numbers."
The diplomat said, however, that the numbers were certainly in the hundreds and that 14 buses had been sent to the border by embassies and the international construction firm of Lummus Thyssen, which has numerous major projects in southern Iraq, to pick up the refugees. They were to be housed temporarily in hotels in Kuwait.
Some of the first refugees to cross the border, according to diplomats, were survivors of yesterday's dawn Iranian raid of an Iraqi petrochemical complex at Zubair, just south of Basra. They reported rockets slamming into the plant, demolishing several buildings and starting a rash of oil fires.
Just how many casualties there were at the plant remained unclear. The British Foreign Office has confirmed that four British nationals were killed in the raid on Zubair.
The Iraqi government reported yesterday that the air raids on Baghdad and Basra, the country's only port, killed 47 civilians and wounded 116. Iranian radio broadcasts called the charge that they bombed civilian targets "a lie and a slander."