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POWs set to be released

[Iraq] Iraqi prisoners wait at a Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in southern 
Iraqi prisoners wait at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. (Mike White)

Thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war (POWs) could begin to be released within a few days. About 6,000 prisoners are currently being held at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, near the port of Umm Qasr.

Col Ralph Sabatino of the US forces said at the camp on Wednesday that an official "cessation of hostilities" had to be declared before the release of the majority of those being held in the large compounds could begin. This relied on a political decision by the US and UK and a date had not yet been set. "But we seem to think that it might be in a couple of days," Sabatino said.

According to Article 118 of the 3rd Geneva Convention of 1949 "prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities."

Sabatino said: "Certainly within a week we will be releasing whole groups of people, hundreds of people at a time, as quickly as we can process them out." He estimated as many as 500 people a day could then leave the camp. "And so it will only be a matter of days before we get everyone out of the camp."

Already some people who had been detained but subsequently proved to be civilians caught up in the fighting had been allowed to go. But others are still arriving from outlying holding camps and being screened to see if they are combatants or not, as many soldiers had simply taken off their uniforms and pretended to be civilians.

Sabatino said each new arrival had a face-to-face interview that could last up to half an hour, during which they were asked basic questions. "And we try to see if we can either corroborate or disprove what they have told us, either by physical confirmation or information they may have in their effects."

For example, if the prisoner said he was a tomato farmer, the interviewer would inspect his hands to see if they were rough or calloused. The interviewers would also look for tattoos that may show the prisoners were members of Saddam Husayn's fedayeen or other paramilitary groups. "If we think that these people are not telling the truth, then we will hand them on to other interrogators to see who they actually are," Sabatino said.

Nearly 2,000 American soldiers run the vast camp that sits on a shadeless plain near the Kuwaiti border, sweltering in temperatures reaching 40 degrees C. Sabatino said up to 7,000 POWs had been held at one stage, and that this was the biggest internment facility since the last Gulf War in 1991.

He stressed that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been given free access to the POWs and that its suggestions for improvements had been acted on.

Sabatino said all POWs were given three meals a day, water for drinking and washing, a place to pray and all medical care that was needed. A surgeon at the camp, Dr Rafael Semidei, said POWs were treated for everything from combat wounds to mental illness problems. Others were suffering from malnutrition and poor health care in the past. "They get the same standard of care as we would give our soldiers or anyone in the United States," Semidei said.

Bart Vermeiren, a protection delegate with the ICRC in the main southern Iraqi city of Basra, noted that initial concerns about the camp had been expressed to the military, and improvements had been put into effect. ICRC staff were still visiting the camp daily and had registered all the POWs on a database. And on Wednesday the staff had begun a massive operation to try and put prisoners in touch with their families. Each prisoner could fill out a "Safe and Well" message with the address of his family.

The ICRC in Basra then put up a list of the family members on a wall near its headquarters and named families could then go to the ICRC to receive the message from their detained relative. Vermeiren said 1,200 names had been pasted up on the first day and another 800 would go up on Thursday. He said the ICRC would continue its work with POWs and missing soldiers long after the release of those in Camp Bucca; as an example of this, he said it was still dealing with POWs from the Iraq-Iran War, which ended in 1988.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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