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Nearly 900 Iraqi prisoners released

Saturday 19 April 2003, 6:05 PM

Coalition forces sorting through thousands of Iraqi war prisoners have released nearly 900 after determining they were civilians who had nothing to do with the fighting.

Other prisoners, particularly high ranking military or government officials in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's toppled regime, are being questioned as part of the search for former top Iraqi leaders and weapons of mass destruction.

The United States is holding 6,850 prisoners at a large facility in the southern port city of Umm Qasr, Pentagon spokesman Major Ted Wadsworth said.

A total of 887 prisoners who had been held in a British camp and in an American camp in Umm Qasr have been released, most of them in the past two weeks, Wadsworth said.

"We stated from the beginning that we don't want to hold anybody any longer than absolutely necessary," Major Wadsworth, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

"The process of sorting people to determine their status has begun."

Those released were determined to have been non combatants, he said, meaning they did not engage in hostile acts during the war and were not part of a military force.

The US has taken control of both POW camps in Umm Qasr, Wadsworth said. Other US military units are holding prisoners at various places around Iraq.

A tent city that could hold up to 24,000 prisoners is being constructed in Umm Qasr to consolidate the existing prisoners and provide room for any additional Iraqis who might be detained.

An interrogation facility also is planned, officials have said, adding that not all prisoners have been identified and that they hope to get intelligence from some.

No Iraqi prisoners have been taken outside Iraq, a military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

International conventions allow the prisoners to be held until the end of hostilities. Pentagon officials say US troops will hold prisoners until they can be turned over to an Iraqi government - meaning the prisoners could be detained until well after the fighting is over.

US President George W Bush's administration also has said it will prosecute Iraqi leaders who committed war crimes against American soldiers in this campaign or the Gulf War of 1991.

Meanwhile, the coalition continues to take more prisoners, pressing its hunt for former leaders of the Iraqi regime as well as for chemical and biological weapons.

Kurds in the coalition force captured senior Baath Party official Samir Abd al-Aziz al-Najim, marking the second time in as many days that troops have found someone on the US most wanted list of former regime figures, the Central Command reported yesterday.

2003 AP

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