DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, OCT. 4 -- Five Europeans escaped from Iraq in a small boat, crossing more than 200 miles of the Persian Gulf before they were spotted by a Japanese barge off the Saudi coast, members of the group said today.

The three Britons and two Frenchmen, who were rescued Wednesday morning off the border city of Khafji, spent 25 hours in a 10-foot fiberglass boat floating through the marshes and canals of southern Iraq, down the Shatt al Arab waterway and into the gulf.

They avoided lights, used a small compass to navigate and got lost several times before they were picked up by the Saudi coast guard, notified by the Japanese barge.

"It's a trip I wouldn't like to do again, but it was well worth it now that I am here," Michael Teesdale, 40, said at a news conference. "My fear was of Iraq, not of the trip."

It was the first report of Western men escaping Iraq in more than six weeks. Baghdad has permitted hundreds of women and children to leave Iraq and Kuwait since its invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2 but has restricted departures of thousands of Western men.

{In Washington, the State Department said Thursday that another group of Americans will be flown out of Iraq and Kuwait next Wednesday on a U.S.-government charter flight. The number of Americans who will be allowed on the flight was not disclosed, but officials said it could be large because a Boeing 747 has been chartered.}

Iraq has taken several hundred of the hostages and put them near key military and civilian targets, describing them as "guests" serving to prevent a military attack on Iraq. Western leaders have described them as a "human shield."

The Britons said they knew of some Americans being held near the oil installation where they worked south of the Iraqi port of Basra. They said they did not want to reveal the information about the detainees publicly.

The other escapees were Britons Ivan Manning, 44, and Keith Barkworth, 36. The Frenchmen, barge masters Amedee du Paty, 53, and Janel Cellier de Buriane, 55, refused to talk to the press on the advice of their embassy.

The Britons said that while they had plenty of food and water and were not held at gunpoint, they were worried about what might happen if a war broke out over the Iraqi occupation. "The conditions were OK," Teesdale said. "What we feared most was if trouble started, who knows what would have happened."

The boat was readily available to them because of their exploration work in the marshes. They chose the night of Mohammed's birthday, when many Iraqis went fishing, to escape. They carried beer, whisky, vodka and cheese sandwiches on board as if they were going for a picnic.

They made their way along canals out into the gulf through the Shatt al Arab waterway, closed to shipping since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. A rare heavy mist and overcast skies helped prevent them from being sighted. The five worked in rotation, one on lookout, one steering and one working the bilge pump.