Thirty-nine Americans -- including a 10-year-old California girl -- are being held against their will in a Baghdad hotel by Iraqi officials, the State Department declared yesterday.
State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler refused to call the Americans "hostages," but conceded that they have been confined to the hotel by Iraqi officials.
In stronger language than U.S. officials had used to describe the situation Monday, Tutwiler said U.S. diplomats in Washington and Baghdad had insisted that the Americans be allowed to leave the country as soon as possible. But she said that while the discussions with Iraqi officials were not encouraging, it was "premature" to describe the Americans as hostages.
Asked about the State Department's stronger language, a senior official said last night that it was not the product of any new or specific threat against the Americans, but a general sense that there was increased uncertainty about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's intentions.
The group being held in Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel includes 11 oil workers and 24 persons who had been bused from hotels in Kuwait and three others, Tutwiler said. She said the Americans whom U.S. diplomats have seen appeared to be in good health.
Jordanian officials said yesterday they would facilitate the overland evacuation from Baghdad of non-essential U.S. diplomatic staff and dependents. The estimated 500 U.S. citizens in Iraq have been advised to leave.
Jordanian sources said the plan would be to meet Americans at the Iraqi border on Thursday and transport them by car and bus to Amman. But a spokesman for the British Foreign Office said Jordan had told Britain it could not confirm that Iraq had actually given permission for foreigners to leave.
State Department officials would not identify any of the Americans being held in Baghdad, but Tutwiler confirmed that one of those being held is Penelope Nabokov, the 10-year-old daughter of Peter and Isabelle Nabokov of Albany, Calif.
Peter Nabokov told a news conference in an Oakland suburb yesterday that his daughter was one of the 367 passengers taken off a British Airways jet when it landed in Kuwait last week while the Iraqi invasion was underway. She was flying from her grandparents' home in France to be with her mother, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, at a research site in India. Along with other passengers on the flight, she was ordered off the plane, her father said, and eventually taken to Baghdad.
Nabokov said he was announcing his daughter's plight in hopes that American officials would "have a bead on this little girl and that they are following her with a hot red light to whatever plane she gets on, whatever border she crosses, whatever river she meets and whatever plane she boards out of Baghdad."
"Everything is confused," said Connie Ogle, daughter-in-law of Rainard Walterscheid, a drilling supervisor from Jacksboro, Tex., who was believed to be among the 11 American oil workers taken to the hotel. "It's changed forever now. All of our lives have been changed," she said.
Walterscheid was among 16 drilling supervisors hired by OGE Drilling Inc., a Houston firm, who were believed to be in Kuwait at the time of the invasion, according to Bill Schaub, a company spokesman. Two other Americans hired by the firm to work in the oil fields were out of the country on leave when the Iraqi forces took control of the oil fields, Schaub said. Another group of four OGE employees and one dependent decided to stay in Kuwait Friday, and company officials said their whereabouts are unknown.
Last night, the State Department advised Americans against traveling to eastern Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates because of the Iraqi invasion.
"I really believe with all my heart that they're going to let them out, but I think it'll be awhile now," D'anna McClintock, a cousin of Edward Hale, another Texan being held at the hotel, told the Houston Post. McClintock said the family had been contacted by the State Department, but added that "the last three days have been really tough on the whole family."
"My opinion is there is not a whole bunch they can do at this point," she said. Hale had been working on an offshore rig near the Kuwait-Iraq border when the invading troops ordered the Americans off, she said.
Relatives of another man working on a rig near the border told a Louisiana newspaper that the man's wife was talking to him on the telephone when he told her "they've got us surrounded with guns and we've got to go."
The conversation between Linda Parker and her husband, Bobby Gene Parker, 48, an electrician from Beaumont, Tex., left her shaken, Parker's aunt, Sybil Colvin told the Shreveport Times. "His wife is just about ready for a nervous collapse."
Special correspondent Jill Walker contributed to this report from Albany, Calif.