Hoping to head off what a Pentagon official called "a hostage situation," the Bush administration contacted Iraqi diplomats in Washington, New York and Baghdad on Friday to demand the release of an American seized by an Iraqi military patrol while he was working on the Kuwaiti side of the Kuwait-Iraq border.
Apparently attempting to prevent an escalation of the incident, President Bush made no public comment on the capture of Clinton "Chad" Hall, a weapons expert, or on U.S. efforts to free him. The president said at midday he would have a statement later.
Hall, about 50, was seized by plainclothes Iraqi agents on the Kuwait side of a demilitarized zone straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border about 1:15 p.m. Kuwait time Thursday, according to a United Nations statement.
"We have a very clear intention to see him released immediately and safely. That's what we're working on," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who refused to give details about the Iraqi government's response to U.S. overtures.
As described by people following the incident here, in New York and in Kuwait, Hall was taken about a mile inside Kuwait while clearing the area of explosives with two Pakistani co-workers from Environmental Health Research and Testing of Lexington, Ky. The company has a contract with the Kuwaiti government to clear away ordnance left from last year's Persian Gulf war.
The Kuwait military reported that the Pakistanis were cleaning up unexploded munitions in the DMZ around 1 p.m. Thursday when the Iraqis drove up and interrupted their work.
Hall, who was some distance away, reportedly drove over to the Iraqis and asked what they were doing. The Iraqis argued with the three foreigners, apparently claiming they had crossed onto Iraqi territory.
In the course of questioning, they found out Hall is an American and was supervising the crew. They took Hall into custody and drove away with him. The Associated Press reported from Kuwait that Hall's associates said the Iraqi police put a gun to the American's head and forced him to accompany them into Iraq.
Guards from the U.N. Iraq Kuwait Observer Mission, who patrol the DMZ that extends six miles into Iraq and three miles into Kuwait, reportedly were within sight when the incident occurred. The UNIKOM guards do not carry weapons and do not act as police officers, although they routinely ask unauthorized people to leave the DMZ.
As soon as UNIKOM personnel at the headquarters town of Umm Qasr learned of the incident, they requested Hall's release from the Iraqi liaison officer there. They also relayed the news to the UNIKOM Baghdad office, which has been trying to secure Hall's release from Iraqi authorities there.
Nizar Hamdoun, Iraq's new U.N. ambassador, tried to keep the situation calm by reporting Hall "is safe and in good health," and by maintaining he hopes the issue can be resolved through diplomatic means before a crisis erupts.
"I don't think that we are interested in that," he said.
Company and administration officials would not provide details about Hall, saying they were treating the episode as "a hostage situation" and wanted no information disclosed that might aid his captors.
The area where Hall was seized formerly was part of Iraq, but was awarded to Kuwait last spring by a special U.N. border commission charged with demarking the border between the hostile neighbors.
Iraq still has refused to accept the new boundaries, but the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed the commission's authority to set the new line.
The border area, alternating between swampy and desert terrain, is not well marked. Even local Kuwaiti and Iraqi police find themselves confused and lost at times, according to UNIKOM guards.
Iraqis arrested several Americans in the border area shortly after the gulf war ended early last year, and in the last three months a British caterer and three Swedish engineers who said they thought they were in Kuwait were seized. The latter four all were sentenced to seven years in Iraqi prison for illegally entering the country.
The border commission has placed some temporary posts to mark the border, but will only begin Monday the weekslong job of raising concrete pillars the length of the border, a U.N. spokesman in New York said.
Besides increasing U.S.-Iraq tensions, the seizure of Hall shows the limited utility of the "no-fly zone" recently established in southern Iraq to protect Shiite Muslims there from harassment by Iraqi authorities.
American, British and French fighter planes are constant sentinels flying across the lower third of Iraq, guarding against Iraqi flights there. This incident demonstrates the powerful bombers are less useful against ground actions Iraq may choose to conduct.
The seizure of Hall, if it is not overturned by higher Iraqi authorities, contradicts the policy adopted at the highest levels in Baghdad only a month ago, when the no-fly zone was implemented. At that time, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his subordinates were careful not to provoke any crisis in relations with Washington. They condemned the allied action but took no overt counteraction.
The border incident coincided with the United Nations' rejection of an Iraqi request to delay sending a team of weapons inspectors to Baghdad next week. The Iraqis wanted the trip put off until after the U.S. presidential election Nov. 3.
_ Information from Cox News Service, the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.