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Ex-hostages: Iraqis abusing Americans

French hostages who returned from Iraq after their liberation by Saddam Hussein said Tuesday that American and other hostages still held captive at strategic sites in Iraq had been subjected to physical and mental abuse. Many of the 267 freed French hostages, including the first large group of so-called "human shields" released since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, said some Americans were seriously injured and in failing health in confinement at military bases, weapons factories and other strategic sites scattered around Iraq and Kuwait. They are being held as insurance against attack by the multinational forces arrayed against Iraq.

"There is an American who is in terrible condition at a military base," said Yann Rivoallan, 34, a French maintenance contractor kept for three months at strategic sites in Iraq and Kuwait. "He has a fractured arm that is highly infected, and his state of health is extremely serious. He could die very soon."

Another French human shield, Patrick Moniette, said that the hostages at the strategic locations were sometimes fed only a bowl of watered-down chicken broth and one hard piece of bread a day. He said the hostages sometimes lived in offices that had been converted into dormitories and were allowed outside only 1{ hours each day.

The French accounts paint the bleakest picture yet of life as a hostage in Iraq. Their portrayal of constant mental torture stands in start contrast to the "swimming-pool hostage" image promoted by Iraqi officials in Baghdad.

In general, they confirmed statements about hostage abuse made Monday by Secretary of State James Baker in Los Angeles. In an address before the World Affairs Council, Baker said that American hostages were "forced to sleep on vermin-ridden floors," and added: "They are kept in the dark during the day and moved only at night. They have had their meals cut to two a day, and many are becoming sick as they endure a terrible ordeal."

All the French hostages spoke of a spirit of fraternity among the hostages of all nationalities, including a large number of Americans, Britons and Japanese kept at strategic sites.

"We left behind our English and American friends who helped us survive," said a hostage interviewed on French television after his arrival in France early Tuesday morning. "There was a strong climate of solidarity there."

The returning hostages reported that Americans and British were singled out for particular abuse. Unlike other hostages, they said, the Americans and British were not allowed to receive mail or make telephone calls.

"Everything was done to degrade and lower the people to the level of an animal, especially the Americans and the English," said Rivoallan, the maintenance contractor. "The Iraqis especially disliked the Americans. For them they were Satan."

Nevertheless, he reported, the American hostages "carried themselves with great dignity."

Rivoallan described the captives' world as one of barbed wire, hovering guards, overflowing toilets and near-starvation quantities of food served without plates or utensils. "We had to wash our feet and shoes every time we went to the toilet," he said in describing one of the strategic sites.

In a move widely perceived as an attempt to divide the Western nations poised against him, Iraq's President Hussein last week announced the release of all French hostages, including those held at strategic locations.

About three weeks ago, Rivoallan said, the French were given better accommodations and food. "I had the impression that they made the decision to free us about Oct. 8 and for that reason they suddenly transferred us to much better conditions."

Rivoallan said that his release has left him with a bitter feeling of having been used as a propaganda pawn.

"We have been freed, but people have been left behind. To know that we have been freed by Saddam for propaganda reasons is nauseating," he said.

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