WASHINGTON -- Ten allied prisoners of war were released by Iraq yesterday in an opening gesture aimed at winning a formal end to the Persian Gulf war.
Six of the 10 are Americans, including Army Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy of Grand Rapids, Mich., the only female soldier reported missing in the conflict. All six were reported to be in good health and were headed last night to Bahrain on their way home.
The remaining prisoners included in this first symbolic release were three Britons, pilots Malcolm Graham MacGown, Lt. John Peters and Ian Robert Pring, and one Italian, Capt. Maurizio Cocciolone, a Tornado pilot. They also enjoyed a lunch of cheeseburgers and Pepsi courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross before leaving Baghdad for Jordan.
U.S. officials, while applauding the release as a "positive" move, said no formal peace with Iraq would be granted until all missing U.S. soldiers had been returned or accounted for. President Bush also insisted that "every single one" of the Kuwaiti citizens taken hostage by retreating Iraqi forces be returned.
At least six more U.S. servicemen are listed as POWs and 35 as missing in action. Various networks reported that Abdul Amir al-Anbari, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, said all allied prisoners would be released early today.
Meanwhile, allied officials prepared for the reciprocal release today of 300 Iraqi soldiers captured during the 42-day war.
Speaking yesterday to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention as reports persisted of uprisings against President Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated the Bush administration's desire that Mr. Hussein be replaced by his own people.
Administration officials ducked all questions about whether allied forces might assist the Iraqi rebels if their help were requested.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly noted that simply returning the Iraqi POWs would be likely to "exacerbate the situation a great deal. . . . Beaten armies can be politically dangerous."
In addition to the 300 Iraqis scheduled to be released today, there are at least 63,000 still being held by allied forces.
The release yesterday of the first 10 allied prisoners came in compliance with an accord struck in the desert Sunday between Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief allied commander, and Iraqi military leaders.
The former POWs, wearing bright yellow overalls bearing the letters "P.W.," were handed to the International Committee of the Red Cross at Baghdad's Novotel Hotel in the presence of an Iraqi army brigadier. They were driven in a Red Cross convoy to Jordan.
"They said the treatment was good and improved in the last few weeks. They did not talk about physical abuse," the U.S. ambassador in Jordan, Roger Harrison.
From Amman, the six were flown to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf for examinations aboard the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy.
"I'm pleased to report that they are all in good shape and in goo spirits," said Air Force Col. Wynn Mabry, who headed the medical team checking the POWs on a flight from Jordan.
He said there is no indication the POWs were tortured or seriously mistreated.
Colonel Mabry said one of the former POWs, Navy Lt. Robert Wetzel, had a broken arm that was set and treated properly by Iraqis, and Navy Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, 28, whose face appeared cut and swollen on television, probably suffered the injuries when he was shot down and ejected from his plane.
The six Americans will probably spend three or four days on the ship before returning to the United States. The plans for the other four were not immediately known.