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Iraq frees American taken at gunpoint

In a swift about-face, Iraqi authorities released an American munitions expert into the custody of United Nations officials in Baghdad on Saturday after abducting him at gunpoint in Kuwait on Thursday.

"He is in Baghdad's Unikom office," said Abdel Latif Kabbaj, a spokesman for the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission. The mission, known as Unikom, was created to demarcate the border between the two countries under the cease-fire agreement that ended the Persian Gulf war.

Western diplomats said they expected the freed American, Clinton Hall, 50, to return to Kuwait by this afternoon.

The quick decision to release Hall, who Iraqi officials initially contended had strayed across the border, contrasts with the severe sentences given to three Swedish engineers and a British caterer who were picked up near the border by Iraqi authorities during the past three months.

Those men were charged with illegally entering Iraq and sentenced to seven-year prison terms, drawing strong protests from their governments.

Pakistani embassy officials in Kuwait said Saturday they had received word a Pakistani citizen and a Philippine citizen who disappeared near the border on Aug. 20 also would be put on trial for illegally entering Iraq.

Western diplomats said the rapid release of Hall suggested the Baghdad government was anxious to avoid giving the United States any excuse for seeking a confrontation with Iraq.

The incident coincides with a request from Baghdad last week that the United Nations delay any additional visits to Iraq by its weapons experts until after the U.S. presidential election. In a letter, the Iraqi government said it wanted "to avoid the possibility of the U.S. administration exploiting the proposed visit for their own ends."

But officials of the U.N. special commission in charge of dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction said Friday that an inspection team of about 50 people would arrive in Baghdad as scheduled on Saturday.

Hall, who worked clearing the tons of munitions and mines left by retreating Iraqi troops along the border, was seized about 1.5 miles inside Kuwait as two Pakistani colleagues watched, U.N. officials said.

The United States demanded his release.

Saturday, the Iraqi government backtracked on its earlier assertion that Hall was inside Iraq's borders when he was seized.

"Iraqi authorities have investigated the issue of Hall's arrest throughout the last 24 hours and concluded that a certain confusion has led to his arrest by an Iraqi officer," a spokesman for the Ministry of Information said in Baghdad.

Yal Akor, the project manager for the Turkish company ICTAS, for which Hall worked as a bomb-disposal expert, said the two Pakistani colleagues were approached by two Iraqi officials in a green Range Rover on Thursday afternoon.

The Iraqis accused the two men of being on the Iraqi side of the border, he said.

"When Mr. Hall intervened, an Iraqi guy produced a gun," Akor said. "Mr. Hall told the Iraqis that all of them should go to Camp Khor to mediate."

But the Iraqis refused to speak with U.N. officials, who were just a few hundred yards away at Camp Khor, the U.N. headquarters on the site of a former Iraqi naval base south of Umm Qasr.

One of the Iraqi men showed the workers a card identifying him as a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army before forcing Hall to drive his vehicle into Iraq, Akor said.

Under Iraqi law, anyone who enters the country without a visa can be sentenced to between one and 20 years in prison.

About 300 unarmed observers of the United Nations patrol the 126-mile-long border by helicopter and jeep, enforcing a 9.3-mile-wide demilitarized zone.

A U.N. commission has finished demarcating the disputed frontier and is setting up concrete posts every 1.2 miles to define the border area.

But U.N. officials in the demilitarized zone are powerless to intervene in a dispute like the one involving Hall.

Tensions along the border have increased since May, when Iraq rejected the demarcation line drawn by the U.N. team.

There have been sporadic night attacks on Kuwait police posts in the past few weeks, including one Tuesday that left three Kuwaiti police officers wounded.