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ICRC gains access to Iraqi POWs

A Royal Marine seizes an Iraqi POW in Basra

(Keystone)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has begun visiting thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) held by coalition forces in Iraq.

A team of 15 delegates travelled to a camp in the south of the country, where allied forces are reportedly holding 3,000 Iraqi POWs.

The team, including one doctor and six interpreters, is making a detailed inspection of the camp to ascertain whether United States-led forces are complying with the Geneva Conventions.

ICRC spokeswoman Tamara Al Rifai, who is based in Kuwait, told swissinfo that the humanitarian organisation wanted to ensure prisoners were being treated properly.

"We look at the premises and see what kind of facilities there are. We also look at the treatment they [POWs] have had since they were arrested and how much access to food, water and fresh air they get - everything that makes up their everyday life," said Al Rifai.

However, the ICRC will not release details about conditions in the prison camp or how the Iraqi soldiers are being treated, in accordance with its policy of maintaining confidentiality.

"The ICRC does not comment publicly but shares its findings with the detaining authorities with a view to achieving improvement if and when required," said Balthasar Staehelin, the ICRC's Middle East chief.

Conducting interviews

Delegates of the Geneva-based organisation have started interviewing and registering Iraqi prisoners, a process that could take some days.

"The initial visit was to register all the people in the camp and conduct private interviews with them to give them the opportunity to talk freely," explained Al Rifai.

According to Al Rifai, the ICRC has been unable so far to gain access to coalition POWs held by Iraqi forces, but she said negotiations were ongoing.

"We hope we will meet them [coalition prisoners] soon. There have been declarations by the allied forces and the Iraqi authorities on their commitment in respect to the Geneva Conventions, so we can actually say that we are in dialogue at this very minute," added Al Rifai.

Since the US-led war began on March 20, Iraq has acknowledged capturing six Americans, including two pilots.

Humanitarian aid

The ICRC has also been allowed into the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the humanitarian situation has been described as grave.

"We have had a team in Basra for the past three days. Our main concern now is life-saving operations," Al Rifai told swissinfo.

"We are looking into medical treatment and the civilian population's access to water. We want to make sure the hospitals that deal with the wounded have enough medical supplies and clean water to keep their operations running," she continued.

The team in Basra is also expected to repair three of the six generators needed to get the city's main water treatment plant operating again. Allied forces knocked out the city's main power supply more than one week ago.

But with the ICRC operating under very difficult circumstances, aid is not always getting through on time.

"The biggest difficulty is getting security guarantees for a safe passage of the convoys to a certain area. We travel unarmed and unescorted, which means that we need full cooperation from all parties on the ground," Al Rifai

"If security cannot be guaranteed we have to postpone the operation or take a different route."

swissinfo, Billi Bierling and Samantha Tonkin

Key facts

More than 3,000 Iraqi POWs are thought to be held by coalition forces in Iraq.
A team of 15 ICRC delegates travelled to a camp in southern Iraq.
The ICRC cannot give any details about the conditions in the prison camp.

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