Twenty-three Americans flew out of Iraq on Saturday, the first to depart since the Baghdad government announced it would free all its foreign captives. One shouted jubilantly: "We're outta here!"
The group landed late Saturday in Shannon, Ireland, aboard a jetliner chartered by former Treasury Secretary John Connally. Those aboard were scheduled to continue on a flight to Houston via Bangor, Maine, but there were no details of their travel plans.It was not clear whether their departure had been arranged before the Iraqi parliament on Friday approved President Saddam Hussein's call to free the hostages. The exodus was expected to get under way in earnest on Sunday.
President Bush, in Venezuela, welcomed the move to free the captives, but said Iraq still must get out of Kuwait, which it overran Aug. 2.
"When you don't have Americans there, and if force is required, that's just one less worry I've got," Bush said.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, called on the public Saturday to "renew their vigilance" in the face of a possible threat from the U.S.-led international forces.
The Interior Ministry had instructed civil defense groups and provincial officials to prepare for "any eventuality," said the nightly television news broadcast. Posters warning the population "not to panic in case of attack" appeared on walls of buildings in downtown Baghdad.
Iraqi officials said Saturday all the departing detainees still need exit visas. U.S. officials have asked them to expedite the processing.
Americans who had been held at strategic installations as "human shields" began arriving in Baghdad Saturday. Many said they would not feel safe until they were out of Iraq.
"I still think of myself as a hostage because I cannot leave the hotel," said Edward Smiley of Los Angeles.
Smiley, who said he was moved around to six different locations, described conditions as "very bad." He said the hostages were forced to sleep in bug-ridden beds and to eat fish heads for much of the time.
About 8,000 Westerners had been detained since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, including about 600 who were held at strategic sites in an effort to deter any U.S. attack. The hostages included about 900 Americans as well as other Westerners, Eastern Europeans and Japanese.
The airport departure area was littered with broken suitcases, clothes and other debris left over from a group of at least 200 Vietnamese workers flown to Hanoi earlier in the day.
A witness who did not want to be named described how Iraqi customs officials tore through their luggage pulling out food, carpets and other items.
The 23 Americans on the flight arranged by Connally also included members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Kuwait, and three people who had taken refuge at the ambassador's refuge in Baghdad.
Connally went to Baghdad on a private mission to obtain the release of hostages.
A group of 41 Japanese men whose release was approved before Sadam's announcemnt also flew to Amman, Jordan, on Saturday aboard an Iraqi Airways plane. They later left for Tokyo.
Nur Eldin al-Safi, the head of Iraqi Airways, said the airline was prepared to fly out all of the hostages within three days if their travel documents are ready. He said that no foreign carrier would be allowed to transport them out of Iraq.
Al-Safi said U.S. officials had chartered one of the airlines' Boeing 707s to fly to Kuwait Sunday to pick up Americans. The United States also had chartered a 747 jumbo jet to fly those Americans and others in Baghdad to Frankfurt, Germany, later Sunday, he added.