More than 300 people who left Iraq on Wednesday aboard a U.S.-chartered Iraqi airliner first had to endure a 10-hour bus trip from Kuwait in which they were interrogated repeatedly, deprived of food and water for long periods and threatened by Iraqi soldiers, the State Department charged yesterday.
"Sinister manipulation of innocent lives by the Iraqi government again demonstrates its willingness to disregard every recognized international standard of humanitarian conduct," spokesman Margaret Tutwiler declared, calling Iraq's behavior "simply outrageous."
The British Foreign Office said about 360 people were on the Iraqi Airways Boeing 747, which landed at London's Gatwick Airport early yesterday after a flight from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where most of the passengers boarded, and Baghdad, where it stopped to pick up a number of others.
Tutwiler said about 270 of the passengers were U.S. citizens and their foreign-born family members. These and a number of Canadians aboard were scheduled to continue on to the United States today, arriving at Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina late this afternoon.
Nola Day, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in London, told the Associated Press that the embassy had expected 400 people on the flight but that there were "quite a few less." Tutwiler said that "Iraqi soldiers confiscated the only manifest the passengers had, making it impossible for us to know how many people departed from Kuwait, how many people were prevented from leaving by the Iraqis and how many decided not to go as a result of Iraqi harassment."
Passengers on the flight told of deteriorating conditions in Kuwait, the AP reported from London.
Mohammad Issa, a language teacher from Bridgeport, Conn., with dual U.S. and Jordanian nationality, called the situation in Kuwait "miserable, with people having to stand in line for bread, for gas, for everything."
Robbie Faddah, of Houston, holding her daughter, Laila, told reporters that food supplies were very low. She said Iraqi troops were spread throughout the city and that many cars and trucks were being bombed, probably by the Kuwaiti resistance.
Her husband, Hani Faddah, an electronics engineer who also has dual U.S. and Jordanian nationality, said: "People are getting scared now. It has become like Lebanon. It is descending into a civil war."
Wednesday's charter was the latest of the evacuation flights permitted sporadically since Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait Aug. 2 and its subsequent decision to detain thousands of foreign nationals in the two countries.
Despite widespread international condemnation, Iraq has moved a number of people, including Americans, to military installations and other strategic targets to serve as "human shields" against possible attack from U.S. and other forces deployed in neighboring Saudi Arabia. However, it has allowed some foreigners -- mostly women, children and people of Arab origin -- to leave on charter flights that have been arranged at irregular intervals.
Tutwiler said the latest group of evacuees left Kuwait City Wednesday morning on 10 buses "for a three-hour ride to the Basra airport that turned into a 10-hour ordeal." The Iraqis did not allow a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to accompany them on the bus trip, she said, and reneged on a promise to have a representative of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry assist the convoy.
"Instead of taking the direct route to Basra, the 10 buses were redirected by the Iraqis to the Regency Hotel in Kuwait City," Tutwiler said. "Realizing that their destination had been changed, an unknown number of passengers preferred to return to their homes rather than risk what they believed might result in capture, detention or worse at the hands of the Iraqis."
At the hotel, passengers " were interrogated and harassed for three hours," she said, and at the Kuwait-Iraq border, "they were questioned and harassed again. Some evacuees told us they were threatened with weapons. The convoy was delayed without food and water for another three hours."
Tutwiler said that at the Basra airport, the Iraqis challenged the documentation of eight passengers. One was allowed to continue because he was ill, but the other seven were returned to Kuwait City. Tutwiler did not identify those involved.
She said that "when the plane arrived in Baghdad, an American woman, her Jordanian husand and their two children, and the ill American male were removed from the plane and reportedly were taken to the Mansour-Melia Hotel," where Americans have been detained in the past.
Tutwiler said Wednesday's evacuees did not include any of the U.S. citizens that the State Department says should be released because of medical problems.
Meanwhile, 258 Soviet nationals left Baghdad for Moscow early today in the second of several flights intended to bring 1,500 Soviets home from Iraq, airport sources told Agence France-Presse.