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Last Updated:  Sunday, 6 April, 2003, 05:13 GMT 06:13 UK
Experts to check Iraq 'mass grave'
Bag of human bones discovered in makeshift morgue near al-Zubayr
Some of the human remains have identity cards attached
Forensic scientists are to examine hundreds of skulls and bundles of bone in fragments of military clothing found by British soldiers at an abandoned Iraqi base.

The desiccated remains were found in labelled plastic bags and unsealed hardboard coffins at the base near al-Zubayr in southern Iraq.

Iraqi exile groups and human rights campaigners feared the remains were of dissidents killed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

But Iraq said they were of Iraqi soldiers killed in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, and had recently been returned from Iran.

The area has been sealed off and is being treated as a mass war grave by UK troops, who are sending experts to try to identify the remains.

Iran-Iraq claims

Several catalogues, with faded photographs presumably of the dead people, were also found.

Most of the corpses pictured appeared to have suffered gunshot wounds to the head.

DISTURBING FIND

One reporter said some of the faces in the photographs had been burned, mutilated or scarred with "horrific" injuries.

The BBC's Ben Brown said locals had told him the remains were of Iraqi soldiers killed in war with Iran, recently returned from Tehran.

Qatar-based television channel al-Jazeera quoted an Iraqi official as saying the current conflict had prevented the authorities from returning the bodies to their families.

Oliver Burch of UK-based charity Christian Aid said that was a possibility.

"About two months ago, after years of negotiations, an exchange of bodies had been arranged.

"The relationship between these countries has been so bad for so many years that such a thing as exchanging bodies hadn't been done on time."

Uprising speculation

But other reporters at the scene said some aspects of the base suggested a far more sinister history.

Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch told the BBC it was possible the remains were of military or political enemies of Saddam Hussein.

It could be persons who were accused or suspected of plotting against the Iraqi government, or suspected of some other anti-government activity
Hania Mufti, Human Rights Watch
"It could be either persons who were accused or suspected of plotting against the Iraqi government or suspected of some other anti-government activity."

They could have been victims of the failed Basra uprising against the Iraqi regime at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, she said.

"From 1991 onwards there have been thousands of executions that have taken place after the uprising.

"It is possible that these may date back to 1991 when the uprising took place, or during the subsequent round-up of persons suspected of taking part - civilians or military personnel."

However, she said it would be unusual to find the bodies of political prisoners killed by the regime unburied, and most would have been hanged rather than shot.

'Thousands missing'

Ahmed Shames, chairman of the London-based exile group Iraqi Prospect Organisation, believed the bodies were people who had fought for freedom against Saddam Hussein.

"I am afraid this may be the first of many of these morgues," he said. "There are tens of thousands unaccounted for in southern Iraq."

Reporters suspected at least some deaths had taken place on the premises.

Outside the warehouse was a wall marked with bullet holes, most at head height, which one soldier described as a "purpose-built shooting gallery".

Tiny concrete cells were discovered nearby, some with metal hooks dangling from the ceiling.

Although much of the complex was dilapidated, there were suggestions soldiers had lived in it until recently, with new army shirts found.




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