updated 5/10/2004 9:12:01 AM ET 2004-05-10T13:12:01

Prime Minister Tony Blair told a news conference Monday he did not know the specifics of Red Cross allegations of U.S. and British abuse of Iraqi prisoners until “the last few days.”

Blair’s office has said that the International Committee of the Red Cross had broadly told the British government in February of alleged abuses by coalition troops.

But Blair said details of the abuse allegations “are things that we only knew of in the last few days.”

He also said that “as far as I’m aware, not merely myself but all other government ministers did not know these specific allegations until they arose in the newspapers recently.”

The Defense Ministry is now investigating 33 cases of alleged abuse, a spokeswoman said Sunday.

Allegations handled at ‘operational’ level
According to Blair’s official spokesman, the prime minister was not aware of the Red Cross report when it was passed to British officials in February because it was handled at “operational” level.

“The concerns which were raised were raised with the appropriate people and were dealt with by the appropriate people,” Blair’s spokesman said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.

“The way our system works is that the prime minister is not in charge of every prison in this country nor in charge of every detention center elsewhere. These are matters that are dealt with at the appropriate level,” the spokesman said.

Blair said that his government would release sections of the Red Cross report that related to British troops. He also said he had no objection to the Red Cross publishing the entire document.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published details from the Red Cross report describing beatings and humiliation of prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison and in the British-controlled southern city of Basra. The Red Cross confirmed the leaked report was genuine.

Human rights group Amnesty International says it told British officials about reports of violence and torture a year ago.

‘They did not get back to us’
The human rights group said Sunday it first warned the government last May that prisoners had been tortured, and at least one killed, in British custody. The group said it had held a series of meetings with Foreign Office and defense ministry officials over the past year.

“They said they would look into it and get back to us,” said Amnesty’s Middle East spokeswoman, Nicole Choueiry. “Since then, they did not get back to us.”

Blair apologized Sunday for any abuse of prisoners by British troops, but insisted that the allegations, if true, only applied to a small number of soldiers.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon planned to make a statement to the House of Commons later Monday about the allegations of abuse.

“I think you will find when Geoff Hoon makes his statement this afternoon that any specific allegations that have ever been made in respect of British troops were immediately investigated and dealt with,” Blair said Monday.

“And in respect of any activity that is in any shape or form in breach of the Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners, I utterly deplore it,” he added.

Earlier Monday, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that “anyone who sees the pictures and hears the stories of what some soldiers, American and possibly British, have been doing to Iraqi prisoners, feels I think shame and disgust.”

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