Two Americans working in Kuwait have been held since Monday by Iraqi police after they crossed the border on their way to visit friends, U.N. officials said Friday.
At the White House, press secretary Mike McCurry said President Clinton had been briefed on the situation and the United States was “doing what we should be doing” to get the two men released.
David Johnson, a State Department spokesman, would not confirm reports that the Americans were being held in Baghdad.
The Americans, who were not identified, drove to the U.N. observer mission, based in the Iraqi side of the divided border town of Umm Qasr, and were turned away because they lacked permission to be there, said Salim Fahmawi, spokesman for the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission.
They apparently were headed back to Kuwait when they were arrested by Iraqi police Monday night, Fahmawi said.
A U.N. diplomat in New York said the Americans were trying to visit friends in a Danish engineering unit housed near Umm Qasr. They were driving a white jeep similar to those used by the United Nations, and were about 25 yards inside Iraq when they were seized, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Since the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iraq, Washington has asked the United Nations and Poland, which handles U.S. interests in Baghdad, to investigate, officials in Washington said.
The head of the U.N. force in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Krishna Thapa, visited Baghdad on Tuesday to ask about the Americans, the U.N. official in New York said. The Iraqis neither confirmed nor denied knowledge of the arrests.
As of Friday, the United Nations had received no response to Thapa’s demand for the release of the Americans and guarantees of their safety, the diplomat said.
McCurry said the two Americans are employees of a private U.S. company, but he would not release further details or their identities, citing privacy laws.
Fahmawi said the two drove across the protective trench the Kuwaitis dug along the 130-mile border near Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only port on the Persian Gulf.
Part of the port was ceded to Kuwait three years ago, when the United Nations redrew the border after the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led multinational coalition ended the Iraqis’ seven-month occupation of Kuwait. The U.N. observers have their headquarters in the Iraqi part of Umm Qasr.
“They were stopped by U.N. personnel at Umm Qasr … for lack of authorization to enter,” Fahmawi said. As they were apparently heading back toward Kuwait, “they were apprehended by Iraqi police.”