Mainlanders flee from Baghdad as war draws nearer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 12:00am

Chinese residents of Baghdad are fleeing the city as Beijing prepares to abstain on a United Nations resolution that would sanction the use of force against Iraq.

Before the start of the crisis, more than 200 Chinese lived in Baghdad, one of the largest non-Arab foreign communities, including diplomats, journalists, United Nations workers and company representatives, official newspapers have said.

They lived in spacious homes with gardens built by wealthy Iraqis before the Gulf War, and employ maids, drivers and guards.

Now fewer than 100 remain and more are going, including most representatives of the 119 Chinese companies in Iraq - including China Petrochemical, China Oil and Natural Gas Company and Hangzhou Minerals - involved in oil exploration and projects related to the UN 'oil for food' programme.

The China Machinery Equipment Company is building a power station as part of the UN programme. Power equipment worth US$12 million (HK$93.3 million) recently arrived at an Iraqi port.

'We want to wait until absolutely the last minute before pulling out,' said a company worker in Baghdad. 'Otherwise, we will incur major losses.'

The atmosphere is tense, with people staying close to satellite television and the Internet to keep up with the latest news.

Ambassador Zhang Weiqiu, who took up his post in 1998, said some diplomats and family members were evacuated to Jordan during the bombing of Baghdad by American and British planes that year, while key staff remained at their posts.

'But the situation now is different and we are taking measures to protect the safety of embassy staff and Chinese in Iraq. The embassy has held many meetings with Chinese here to work out emergency measures,' Mr Zhang said.

To leave Iraq, foreigners require an exit permit from immigration authorities, as well as approval from the government ministry that their company is affiliated with, a procedure which can take up to five days.

The only scheduled international flights are to the Jordanian capital, Amman, or the Syrian capital, Damascus.

A four-wheel Jeep can be hired for the 1,000km drive to Amman, which takes about 10 hours. The cost of the journey ranges from US$100 to US$200 in normal times, but if tension is high the price can rise to US$1,000 and if war breaks out the price could become astronomical.

Yu Rui, one of four Chinese citizens who has worked in the UN Humanitarian Assistance office for five years, is married to a Canadian colleague and is six months pregnant.

'In 1998, during the bombing by the United States and Britain, we took shelter in a Baghdad hotel which shook because of the bombs. It was terrifying.

'Then the UN organised seven vehicles to take several hundred people to Jordan. Four days later we returned to carry on our work,' she said.

Diplomats say Beijing is likely to abstain on a UN resolution allowing force against Iraq because it does not want to damage its relations with the US.