Iraqi troops kissed Saddam Hussein's hands as he took his first known tour of occupied Kuwait, and officials said Thursday that three Britons and two Frenchmen had fled Iraq in a daring escape by boat.
The five Europeans were found Wednesday by the Saudi coast guard in the small boat in a Persian Gulf shipping lane off the Saudi-Kuwait border, British diplomats and Saudi officials said.The British escapees told London's Daily Mail newspaper that they had spent 25 hours in rough seas after taking the 10-foot boat through the marshes of southern Iraq, into the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and then the gulf.
It was the first report of Western men escaping Iraq since August.
The Britons said they had been working on a key oil installation near the Iraqi port of Basra, and the two Frenchmen were barge masters. They were among a small number of Europeans living on dwindling food supplies and denied permission to leave.
Iraq is holding about 2,200 Westerners hostage in Kuwait and Iraq, some at strategic installations to discourage attack by the U.S.-led military forces that began massing in the region after Iraq seized Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Nine of those hostages - all Frenchmen - returned to Paris Thursday after being freed earlier by Iraq.
Saddam's visit to Kuwait coincided with the arrival in the region of two foreign leaders and a top envoy seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Yevgeny Primakov, a top adviser to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan were to meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan.
Soviet diplomatic sources said Primakov, a leading Soviet expert on the Middle East, arrived in Baghdad Thursday carrying a message from Gorbachev. Its contents were not disclosed.
In Moscow, Gorbachev said he did not think the crisis would lead to war, and he also told reporters Thursday he saw no reason to send Soviet troops there.
French President Francois Mitterrand, arriving in Saudi Arabia, discussed the crisis with King Fahd and met with French troops in the U.S.-led multinational force.
Kaifu met Wednesday with Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. Jordan has tried to mediate the dispute, even though many of its people support Iraq.
The United States has said its forces will remain until Kuwait's sovereignty is restored.
The Pentagon says Iraq has massed 460,000 troops in Kuwait since the multinational force began forming in the gulf region. The United States now has about 170,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and on ships in the area.
Saddam's tour of Kuwait on Wednesday was his first known trip to the country since Iraq invaded the emirate and declared it Baghdad's 19th province.
He talked with Iraqi troops and presided over two meetings of military commanders, said the Iraqi News Agency, monitored in Cyprus. It said the soldiers confirmed "their ever-readiness for sacrifice for Iraq and the Arab nation and defeating all evil attempts to desecrate our sacred land."
In pictures of the visit broadcast by Iraqi television, Saddam was shown getting into a foxhole as he discussed a machine gun placement with a soldier. Iraqi troops kissed his hands.
The footage also included scenes of all-but-deserted Kuwait City streets, although a dispatch from the Iraqi News Agency said the city "glittered with pride" at Saddam's visit. The agency said Kuwait "appeared flourishing after its return to the mother homeland."
Refugees say Iraqi troops have pillaged Kuwait City and executed resistance fighters, seeking to break the spirit of the Kuwaitis and erase their national identity.