PARIS, OCT. 30 (TUESDAY) -- More than 260 former French hostages arrived home this morning, almost three months after Iraq invaded Kuwait -- some of them bringing tales of harsh detention of Westerners who have been held as "human shields" by the Iraqi regime.

Pierre Sanchez, who described himself as "one of the privileged" hostages who stayed in Baghdad, said those held captive at strategic military and industrial sites "have it very difficult."

"It is especially hard for the Americans and the British hostages there, who are really being treated like prisoners of war. They only got to walk and exercise two hours a day," Sanchez said, reporting what he learned from other Frenchmen who were held at those sites.

As they filed out of the plane and through the baggage-claim area, most of the hostages avoided contact with the press. The few who spoke expressed concern about endangering the fate of the other foreigners who remained under the control of Iraqi authorities.

"How were we treated?" replied a young Frenchman who declined to give his name. "Like all people treated by {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein -- in a variety of ways." He added that "some of the ones left behind are not in good condition."

"The Iraqis constantly move hostages from one site to another," freed hostage Patrick Moniodde, a director of the French perfume company Caron, told the Associated Press. "There was no hygiene. Toilets were very dirty, but we always got medical care." Moniodde said he met at least a dozen American and British hostages and noted they were "very depressed."

A Frenchman who did not give his name said he spent the last 20 years in Kuwait and left all his savings behind. He said conditions have become acutely serious for Kuwaitis there, who are forced to scrounge for food.

Denis Pottier, another Frenchman who stayed in Baghdad, said he spoke aboard the plane with several hostages held at strategic sites who would only say conditions were very tough on them.

But a British woman on the plane said she was kept under relaxed conditions with her father and 47 other hostages at a strategic petrochemical site in Kuwait. "We had a swimming pool, tennis. Every day they brought water and rations to us. We kept our spirits up," she said, noting that British authorities had warned her not to identify the place for fear of endangering her father, who is still there.

Of the Americans she said, "They're okay. We were all treated the same. We're just a bit thinner."

The freed hostages returned to Paris aboard a chartered Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 after a 5 1/2-hour flight from Baghdad that originated in Kuwait City, where 70 French hostages were evacuated.

Six diplomats from Kuwait City's besieged French Embassy, where water and electricity were shut off two months ago by Iraq's occupation forces, joined the flight after they were ordered home by the French Foreign Ministry. Only Britain and the United States now maintain functioning embassies in Kuwait.

The passengers, swarmed by nearly 2,000 family members and well-wishers, were officially welcomed by Edwige Avice, a junior government minister who handles matters involving French citizens who live abroad, and Georgina Dufoix, president of the French chapter of the Red Cross.

No senior officials or politicians attended the arrival, in keeping with the French government effort to depict the release solely as a humanitarian mission. The French government has expressed elation at the hostage release but has insisted that no deal was made with Baghdad and that its support of Western demands for Iraq's complete withdrawal from Kuwait and the release of all foreign hostages has not wavered.

Iraq unilaterally decided last week to release all French hostages in gratitude for what it described as the country's "constructive" stance since the Persian Gulf crisis began. The move was widely interpreted as an effort to split the international alliance against Iraq.

Speaking Monday to reporters at a press conference with visiting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, French President Francois Mitterrand said the release of the French hostages would "in no way change the firmness of French policy." He said that while all of France was elated by the freedom of their countrymen, "we will only rejoice fully when all foreign hostages are released."

When Iraq announced last week that all French nationals could leave, the Foreign Ministry in Paris identified 327 known to be detained in Iraq and Kuwait. But only 263 French citizens were aboard the plane this morning, along with 19 other Westerners, including Greeks, Britons, Filipinos, one German and one Spaniard.

French officials said that more than 60 French nationals voluntarily chose to stay behind, and many are believed to be converts to Islam who are reluctant to leave their Iraqi or Kuwaiti spouses. Others were known to be French workers who wanted to fulfill their contracts in order to be paid.

Following a request by the Iraqi government, France agreed to allow the jumbo jet that brought the hostages home to carry medicine on its return flight, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Medicine is excluded from the United Nations embargo imposed against Iraq and occupied Kuwait.

Iraq's ambassador to France, Abdel Razzal Hashemi, said Monday that the shipment of medicine was "bought and paid for by the Iraqi government and has nothing to do with the permission given to French nationals to return to their country."

Special correspondent Ethan Schwartz contributed to this report.