KUWAIT CITY -- The Kuwaiti government has been unable to stop its soldiers and militia from abducting and torturing Palestinians, according to observers and sources here.
One source said that at least 600 Palestinians have disappeared since Kuwait was liberated and that at least 12 have been killed. The source said that "discipline in the army is breaking down."
U.S. Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm confirmed Tuesday that he gave a list of "several names" of Kuwaiti military men to the government and asked that they be prosecuted for human rights abuses.
He also said that the Kuwaiti government had ordered assistant prosecutors to go into police stations to try to discourage mistreatment and illegal detentions.
Mr. Gnehm said he believed that the government was doing all it could to solve the problem and to "reassert its authority." He acknowledged, "I think there have been individuals in the military" who committed abductions and torture.
Despite numerous news accounts of mistreatment of Palestinians, the State Department has been slow to publicly acknowledge the problem. U.S. and Kuwaiti officials have insisted that the stories could not be verified or that it was unclear who had committed the acts.
Kuwaiti army and former resistance soldiers now man hundreds of checkpoints in Kuwait City and occupy police stations to enforce martial law. Palestinians say they are often seized for no reason at checkpoints. They emerge from police stations days later, often beaten, or do not reappear at all, their families say.
A report released in London Tuesday by Amnesty International asserted that the abuse of Palestinians in Kuwait was increasing.
In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Gnehm said that "there are people missing." He added, "We have heard reports of people being tortured and abused. I believe them. I think the numbers are small [but] unforgivable."
He confirmed that "in the range of" 12 bodies of Palestinians had been found.
Another source said that in addition to Palestinians, who have been singled out because Kuwaitis believe they aided occupying Iraqis, other minorities have been targeted as well for abuse.
"Hundreds" of Sudanese brought to Kuwait to perform the most menial jobs have disappeared, he said, and Kuwaiti soldiers have raped Filipino maids.
Mr. Gnehm said he had no confirmation of those accounts. He sought to portray the abuses as the limited work of "rogue" soldiers.
"I can tell you with certainty about beatings and burns, and there certainly are lots of other stories in town about other kinds of treatment, including deaths," he said. "But I simply don't know what the numbers are. I'm convinced they are few in number. But each and every one is intolerable."
He said that "in the fall of last year, Kuwaitis and others were concerned there might well be a blood bath in Kuwait after liberation because of the high emotions between Kuwaitis and Palestinians. That hasn't occurred."
He said that many of the Palestinians who disappeared might yet show up alive. Some apparently were among those dumped by Kuwaiti military authorities at the Iraqi border who have been unable to cross back into Kuwait.
Human rights groups also have expressed fears about the lack of control by the government.
"The government is in a terrible situation. There are many people acting on their own in the army," said the head of the Kuwaiti Human Rights Committee, Ghanim al-Najar.
"The people who are doing these things are on their own initiatives. There are no orders being given."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which also monitors human rights abuses, has not been given full access to police stations and jails where abducted people may be held and abused, said Walter Stocker, head of the Red Cross delegation.
"It's difficult to get information about what is happening," Mr. Stocker said. "We did go to the government and said there's a lot of rumors, a lot of allegations, and the situation is not under control. They did not deny it."
Mr. Stocker and others said they believed that the government was trying to stop the abuse but that former resistance fighters and other soldiers were defying orders.
The government "is distraught," said one official familiar with the problem. "They know if it's really happening, it's going to discredit them as a nation. It's the last thing the government wants."