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UN: Annan Seeks Progress On Kuwaitis Missing In Iraq

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has issued a report seeking to place new attention on the fate of more than 600 Kuwaitis missing in Iraq since the Gulf War. He says the appointment of a new coordinator to push the issue, and the latest repatriation of prisoners between Iran and Iraq may be cause for some hope of progress. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 20 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the fate of more than 600 Kuwaitis unaccounted for since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is a "humanitarian tragedy."

The secretary-general says in a report to the UN Security Council, released yesterday, that Iraq has not provided information on the missing Kuwaitis since 1998. He says the resolution of the problem would be an important indicator on how Iraq will be judged on other issues related to the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War.

Iraq has been subject to sweeping sanctions since its defeat in the Gulf War. The Security Council has mandated the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the return of property stolen from Kuwait and the resolution of missing persons as conditions for the end of the economic embargo.

Until recently, there has been more attention at the United Nations to the deteriorating condition of civilians in Iraq and plans for renewed visits by weapons inspectors. But the missing persons issue has emerged again as an area of concern. Annan appointed Russian diplomat Yuli Vorontsov in February as his coordinator for the missing persons issue and his report to the council this week was based on some preliminary findings by Vorontsov.

The issue also received attention this week at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, where members passed a resolution condemning Iraq's human rights record. Speaking at the commission on 18 April, Kuwaiti ambassador Dharar Razzooqi made an impassioned call for action on the missing persons issue.

"We come to you in this commission to support us, to add your voice to us and tell Iraqis, 'release our prisoners of war.' Otherwise, don't tell us what you want yourself."

Annan's report to the Security Council made several references to the missing persons topic as an area where Iraqi cooperation could improve the political atmosphere on issues before the council concerning Iraq. Annan said Vorontsov is attempting to engage Iraqi officials directly on the subject. The secretary-general also urged the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the non-aligned movement to use their channels to help resolve the problem.

Annan's said the recent release of prisoners of war from both Iraq and Iran, from their 1980-88 war, gives a "beam of hope" to efforts to bring about a similar release of Gulf War prisoners. Last week, nearly 2,000 Iraqi prisoners of war were repatriated under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross is also assisting in the matter of missing Kuwaitis, but separate from UN efforts.

In earlier efforts at repatriation, about 6,000 Kuwaiti prisoners of war were repatriated from Iraq through the Red Cross and other channels.

Iraq now denies it is holding Kuwaitis or other nationals. It has submitted to the Red Cross requests for the whereabouts of more than 1,000 Iraqis not accounted for after the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Kuwaiti authorities say there are no Iraqi POWs on their territory and they are prepared to allow Iraqi representatives to carry out their own search in Kuwait.