The No. 2 official in Saddam Hussein’s regime acknowledged Saturday that Iraq was holding two Americans who crossed the border from Kuwait but said “nothing much” will happen to them.
The two men, identified by Defense Secretary William Perry as employees of McDonnell Douglas Corp., were arrested Monday night by Iraqi police. Their whereabouts and condition were unknown, despite intensive diplomatic efforts to track them down.
In the first official Iraqi comment on their disappearance, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told Associated Press Television: “The borders must have some respect. There are rules and laws. Surely it will be taken into consideration in dealing with any person that does not respect the laws of the country.”
Ramadan did not say where the Americans are being held or whether they would be put on trial, but he said: “Nothing much will happen to them.”
He also hinted at possible linkage to Baghdad’s drive to get the U.N. Security Council to lift crippling trade sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
“I think those two, you’re not supposed to give them more attention than the 20 million Iraqis that the American administration is working to kill them by starving them to death and making them sick,” he said.
The United States has blocked efforts in the Security Council by Russia and France to consider an easing of the oil embargo, which has wrecked Iraq’s economy and caused hardship for the Iraqi people.
The two Americans were arrested Monday night after they crossed into Iraq from Kuwait to visit friends in a Danish engineering unit attached to the U.N. observer mission, U.N. officials said. The U.N. mission, based in the Iraqi sector of the divided border port of Umm Qasr, was established after the 1991 Gulf War.
In Washington, a Clinton administration official said the United States has contacted the Iraqi government through Polish diplomats, who handle American interests in Baghdad. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iraq.
The official, speaking on terms of anonymity, had no comment on whether the Iraqis had made any response. In Warsaw, Foreign Ministry spokesman Krzysztof Sliwinski said he had not received any information from Baghdad.
Defense Secretary William Perry, visiting Saudi Arabia, said the two men are in no danger and that they are employed by St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp. to service aircraft for Kuwait. Perry said he hoped the matter would be settled by the time he leaves Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
U.S. officials declined to name the men, citing privacy laws.
Kathy Daliberti of Jacksonville, Fla., told The Florida Times-Union newspaper that one of the men is her 41-year-old husband, David.
“I’m just about at my wit’s end, not knowing if he’s all right and how they’re treating him,” she was quoted as saying Friday.
A friend who said she had been asked by Kathy Daliberti to speak for the family, Joyce McCall, said the State Department had been in contact with them Saturday.
“They are doing everything they can with the Red Cross and the U.N. and other diplomatic intermediaries,” McCall said.
The chief Red Cross delegate in Iraq, Michel Ducraux, said his agency was trying to learn where the Americans are being held and what their condition is. “We’re doing our best to get access to them,” he said.