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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 16:17 GMT
Iraqi prisoners freed from jail
Freed Iraqi prisoners
Up to 80 inmates left Abu Ghraib prison
Iraqi prisoners on board two trucks have been driven out of a Baghdad prison and released.

The move came a day after the US-led coalition said it would begin releasing the first 100 out of 506 inmates under an amnesty programme.

But a coalition spokesman declined to confirm whether those freed on Thursday belonged to this group.

Meanwhile, a US army helicopter came down near the volatile town of Falluja, killing all nine on board.

The US military gave no details on the cause of the crash, but its spokesman said the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was making an emergency landing.

Five hundred people is very little
Omar Tawfik
Iraqi human rights lawyer

In another development, one US soldier has been killed and 34 injured in a mortar attack on a base west of the capital, Baghdad.

And in the United States, the influential Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has accused Bush administration officials of systematically misrepresenting the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the March invasion of the country.


Several hundred relatives of Iraqi prisoners gathered outside Abu Ghraib prison - about 35 kilometres west of Baghdad - early in the morning to wait for their release.

Relative outside Abu Ghraib prison
Relatives waited for hours outside Abu Ghraib prison

Translators using loudspeakers told the crowd to go to a nearby town where the prisoners were to be taken by bus upon release.

Only some of the relatives believed them, says the BBC's Chris Hogg in Baghdad, while others preferred to remain within sight of the gates.

As the army trucks with up to 80 inmates left the prison at about 1600 local time (1200 GMT), scores of Iraqis jumped into waiting vehicles to follow the convoy.

A short while later, the prisoners were dropped off to be greeted and embraced by relatives.

The coalition spokesman, Dan Senor, refused either to confirm or deny that the freed inmates were the first batch out of 506 the US had said would be released in coming weeks.

"The process for releasing prisoners is under way. Approximately 100 would be ready to be released today," Mr Senor said.

"They (prisoners) are ready, but that is conditional on the guarantors - the tribal and community leaders - we are in the process of contacting them and waiting for them to step forward," the spokesman added.

'Bloodstained hands'

On Wednesday, the chief US civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said those being released were not closely involved with the anti-US insurgency.

"This is not a programme for those with bloodstained hands," Mr Bremer said.

He added that those being released must "must renounce violence" and have a guarantor responsible for their good conduct.

"In a gesture to give impetus to those Iraqis who wish to reconcile with their countrymen, the coalition will permit some currently detained offenders to return to their homes and families," he said.

'Poor conditions'

US-led forces are holding about 10,000 prisoners in Iraq.

Mr Bremer has faced fierce criticism on the prisoner issue from tribal and community leaders.

International human rights groups have alleged that thousands of detainees are still being held without charge in often overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

"Five hundred people is very little when you go downtown and see all the families and when you ask them [the authorities] if they have a son or a husband they say, 'We don't know'," Iraqi rights lawyer Omar Tawfik told the BBC.

After announcing the prisoner releases, Mr Bremer also unveiled a $200,000 reward programme for information leading to the capture of 30 Iraqis suspected of taking part in the anti-US insurgency.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"What could have been a public relations coup ended in confusion and bitterness"

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