While friends and relatives cheered and waved flags, 156 former hostages touched down in the United States yesterday, ending their four months of hardship and uncertainty as "human shields" and bargaining points for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Under a pink-streaked sunset, the former hostages, most of them men, descended with waving arms and pumping fists from the Pan Am 747 that arrived at Andrews Air Force Base from Frankfurt, Germany. One person, who appeared to be elderly and ailing, was carried from the plane. The former hostages immediately were hustled into four buses and transferred to the base's recreation center, where they were debriefed and reunited with their families.

The return of the hostages did nothing to temper President Bush's criticism of Iraq. Bush used a White House ceremony observing Human Rights Day yesterday to continue his attack on Saddam's treatment of the hostages and of Kuwait citizens. Bush, shaking his head in apparent disgust, said reports from released hostages on their treatment and on conditions in Kuwait amount to "a catalogue of human misery," including torture, rape and murder.

At Andrews, Glenn Coleman, 53, of Boston, described a curious feeling of anger when his Iraqi captors informed him Saturday that he would be freed. An employee of Litton Industries, Coleman and co-worker Dick Sementelli, 50, also of Boston, had been in Baghdad for just a few days on a business trip when everything changed in August.

The men, who described themselves and others as "human shields" whom the Iraqis strategically placed throughout the countryside, were moved many times, they said. Coleman was once housed at a chemical weapons plant on the Syrian border, he said.

"I was angry," said Coleman, describing his reaction when his captors told him that he would be freed and that he should be grateful to them for his release. "I was angry, and they couldn't understand why . . . . He gave me back my birthright. It's like a robber taking something away from you and expecting you to be grateful when you got it back."

Asked how it feels to be free, Coleman said, "It feels great."

The group was among the first to return to the United States since Saddam decided Thursday to allow all hostages to leave Iraq and occupied Kuwait. They had been held against their will since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.

An additional 123 British, Australian and Irish citizens arrived in London aboard two flights from Rome and Frankfurt. "I feel euphoric," said freed British hostage Harvey May.

Australian Steve Hicking proposed to his girlfriend when she met him at London's Heathrow Airport. She said yes.

Also, 384 Westerners, 227 of them believed to be Britons, left Baghdad aboard a British-chartered flight Monday. Diplomats said some Americans were aboard.

U.S. officials were trying to decide last night whether to lower the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and bring home the remaining five diplomats today, when what may be the last chartered airplane is expected to leave Kuwait. As of late yesterday, no one had signed up for the flight, an administration official said. That fact suggested that there might be fewer Americans left in Kuwait than the State Department had thought.

For the hostages, the return marked the end of a nerve-racking period of hiding out, doing without hot food and fresh clothing, and fearing what might happen next. For the estimated 200 relatives and friends who came to Andrews to greet them, a frightening waiting game was finally over.

They crushed against the chain-link fence on the edge of the tarmac, waving yellow ribbons, balloons and bouquets of yellow flowers and holding high their boldly lettered welcome-home signs. "Daddy, Daddy, I'm glad you're home," said one sign. "Welcome home, Pop Pop," said another.

Teresa Byrne came to meet the plane yesterday with her last image of her friend, David Dunn, fresh in her mind. Dunn, a minister for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, had been hugging his children goodbye as they left to return to the United States. "He has been in complete isolation since then," she said.

At the recreation center at Andrews, where the former hostages were formally reunited with their families, the names of the returnees were announced one by one. William Stephens, a State Department employee, was first, and was immediately surrounded by 20 relatives and friends.

Jennifer Anderton, 11, of Larkspur, Colo., said she could barely contain herself when she first saw her father, Richard, an engineer, step from the plane.

"I wanted to break down the barriers and run out and meet him," she said.

Peter Dooley, 40, had been living in Kuwait City since February and was working as a restaurant manager at the time of the invasion. Dooley spent the last 130 days hiding in his apartment, receiving food and word of his situation through a loosely knit coalition of Palestinians, Jordanians and Westerners. Unlike other hostages, Dooley said food did not seem to be in short supply. "It got to the point where people were bringing bagels for me from the supermarket."

Dooley said he received his food after his friends used a telephone signal to alert him. Once, Iraqi soldiers searched his apartment building and knocked on his front door but left when he didn't answer.

Weary former hostages were taken to the West Park Hotel in Rosslyn, where they were to remain for a night before leaving for their final destinations around the country. Jack Rinehart, a designer of electric motors who had been in Kuwait on a two-day business trip when Iraq invaded, told reporters in the lobby of long, hot days in the U.S. Embassy compound with little to eat except tuna and rice. Rinehart, of Stover, Mo., said that for the most part, "We kept cool by lounging around a pool of water."

At the White House yesterday, Bush said, "The eyewitness accounts that I have heard from Kuwaiti citizens are a catalogue of human misery: looting, torture, rape, summary execution, acts of unspeakable cruelty. What has happened to Kuwait is more than an invasion. It is a systematic assault on the soul of a nation.

"Human rights are gaining ground the whole world over," Bush said. "Nowhere is that situation more tragic and more urgent today than in Kuwait." Bush said that nation is "now in the grasp of a tyrant unmoved by human decency."

The president was joined in his sharp rhetoric by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, who warned Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait "with his tail between his legs" and "restore some security and stability" to the Persian Gulf.

Cheney, in a speech to the American Defense Preparedness Association, warned that Saddam should not see the U.S. debate over the use of military force as a lack of determination by the administration to end the occupation of Kuwait by force if necessary.

Yesterday, the Voice of America for the first time began broadcasting the names of four Americans reported to be in Kuwait who had not made contact with the embassy since the Aug. 2 invasion, the official said. The VOA was calling on the four to make contact.

Officials yesterday were trying to decide whether to have U.S. Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and the other four diplomats left at the embassy stay for one last effort to see whether anyone else wants to leave.

The State Department announced Friday that the embassy will close when no more Americans are detained in Kuwait.

For the most part, U.S. officials say, those "Americans" left in Kuwait, aside from the embassy personnel and perhaps a few in hiding, are likely to be Kuwaitis or nationals of other countries who hold a U.S. passport.

Staff writers Lisa Leff, Ann Devroy, Eugene L. Meyer, Brooke A. Masters, John Lancaster, Mary Jordan and Al Kamen contributed to this report.