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US probes whether troops hold Iraq women "hostage"

Michael Georgy, Reuters


BAGHDAD, April 6, 2005(Reuters) - The U.S. military in Baghdad confirmed on Wednesday it was holding two Iraqi women and was investigating accusations that they were being held hostage to pressure their fugitive male relatives to surrender.

A spokesman said the women were detained as insurgent suspects, not hostages. The latter would be a breach of international law, human rights experts say; it could, however, be legitimate to hold relatives as suspects in their own right.

"The U.S. army and Iraqi police did detain two females suspected of collaboration with anti-Iraqi forces," Major Donn Latimer of the 3rd Infantry Division told Reuters, using a term employed by U.S. troops to describe guerrilla insurgents.

"Evidence was found at the residence that indicates clear knowledge of an intent to harm coalition forces," Latimer said.

"Currently their disposition is under review."

The women's names were not available but details of their detention indicated they were relatives of Arkan Mukhlif al-Batawi, who has accused U.S. troops of taking his mother and sister hostage after raiding the family home on Saturday.

Batawi, who farms at Taji just north of Baghdad, told Reuters on Tuesday that the women had been arrested to try to pressure him and his brothers Muhammad and Saddam to surrender themselves to U.S. troops who suspect them of insurgent attacks.

A handwritten note in Arabic at the house read: "Be a man Muhammad Mukhlif and give yourself up and then we will release your sisters. Otherwise they will spend a long time in detention." It was signed "Bandit 6", apparently U.S. army code, possibly designating a company commander.

Several neighbours corroborated Batawi's account of events.

When Reuters called a mobile phone number left on the note, an American who said he was a soldier appeared to be aware of Batawi's accusation but declined further comment.

"THOROUGH INVESTIGATION"

Latimer said the U.S. military was investigating accusations that the women had been detained to pressure the brothers.

"We will conduct a thorough investigation into this matter," Latimer said. "As such we cannot comment further."

Neighbours interviewed around Batawi's villa in the capital's Sunni Arab suburb of Taji corroborated his account.

They said U.S. troops accompanied by Iraqi police had arrested Batawi's 65-year-old mother and a sister who is 35, and had told locals through an interpreter that the women would be freed only once the brothers surrendered themselves.

Batawi, who spoke to Reuters on Tuesday at the offices of a leading organisation for Sunni Muslim clerics, said he was released in August after more than a year in Abu Ghraib jail following the U.S. invasion. He denies helping the insurgents.

On several occasions, Iraqis have accused U.S. troops of arresting women to pressure fugitive male relatives into giving themselves up. Amnesty International says such arrests would be in breach of international law. The U.S. military says it only detains those suspected of crimes or involvement in attacks.

The detention of women in any circumstance angers many Iraqis who say it violates their culture. Sunni clerics have demanded the two women arrested in Taji be freed immediately.

"We condemn this act, taking women hostage to pressure families to hand over relatives," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of Iraq's Sunni Endowment, which supervises shrines and mosques.

"We call for the immediate release of these women to avoid any consequences that could take place."

Batawi said he was not sure why the troops wanted to arrest him and his brothers but believed they might suspect them of involvement in insurgent attacks on U.S. forces.

(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim)

fa5ee_woman.jpeg

:: Article nr. 10941 sent on 07-apr-2005 02:08 ECT

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