The State Department yesterday warned U.S. citizens in Kuwait not to approach the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City because of uncertainty about what Iraqi guards might do, and assured the estimated 2,500 trapped Americans that "your welfare is foremost in our thoughts."
In a Voice of America (VOA) broadcast, the State Department advised Americans instead to telephone the embassy, where Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and a skeleton staff have defied Iraqi orders to shut down operations and leave. Telephone service was reported sporadic, although electricity had been cut off.
In an apparent effort to flush out foreigners hiding with Kuwaiti or Iraqi friends, Baghdad Radio said yesterday that anyone found sheltering foreigners would be executed. "Anyone who shelters a foreigner with the aim of hiding him from the authorities will be committing a crime of espionage," the broadcast said, according to a Reuter report. "He will be hanged for such a crime."
More than 100 embassy employees and dependents who left the U.S. Embassy compound in Kuwait on Thursday remained stranded in Baghdad yesterday, despite what the U.S. government said had been Iraqi assurances of safe passage.
The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Sadiq Mashat, yesterday repeated assurances made in Iraq Friday that wives and children in the group would be allowed to leave Iraq, but he said diplomats in the group would be treated "just like anybody else."
The State Department has been deliberately vague about the number of dependents involved, except to say that they include 30 children.
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft said yesterday in an interview on Cable News Network that "I understand there are negotiations underway; and we are hopeful that a convoy will be allowed to proceed." Scowcroft also said the presence of American hostages will not divert U.S. attention from the goal of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. "The hostages are on the president's mind constantly, and everything we do, we will think about the hostages," Scowcroft said. "They will not divert us, however, from our strategy."
Several dozen Americans, in addition to those in the diplomatic convoy from Kuwait, are believed in direct Iraqi detention, while as many as 3,000 more are in hiding in Kuwait and Iraq.
Mashat, the Iraqi ambassador, was summoned to the State Department for an official protest yesterday. He told reporters after meeting with David Mack, a deputy assistant secretary of state, that "we are not going to use force" against the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. "We haven't touched any embassy there."
U.S. officials continued to maintain contact with the remaining diplomatic staff, headed by Howell, that has defied the Iraqi order to close down.
"The diplomats are still safe, and our ambassador is still carrying out the functions of communicating with Americans there," Scowcroft said. The embassy is equipped with a generator to produce electricity. Telephone service is sporadic.
Although a contingent of Iraqi soldiers remained near the embassy, deputy White House press secretary Roman Popadiuk said at Kennebunkport, Maine, where President Bush is on vacation, "It's all quiet."
However, the broadcast said, "Because we do not know what instructions these guards have, American citizens should communicate with the embassy by phone, and should not, repeat should not, attempt to go to the embassy compound." The broadcast also said that the remaining embassy staff "continue to work . . . to see to the safety and welfare of Americans" and that Americans should continue to keep in touch by telephone and to stay tuned to VOA and the British Broadcasting Corp.
"The United States government wants American citizens to be assured that your welfare is foremost in our thoughts," the broadcast said. "We are determined to continue working for your release from Kuwait and your safe return to your families." The broadcast did not directly encourage Americans to attempt to escape but warned that there are dangers.
"We advise Americans who are considering crossing the desert that there is a confirmed report that at least one person has died attempting to cross. There are also unconfirmed reports that others may have died attempting this route."
A State Department spokesman said the person confirmed dead was not a U.S. citizen.
Phillips reported from Washington, Balz from Kennebunkport.