Iraqi military defends Iran exile camp violence

Sat Apr 9, 2011 5:24pm GMT
 

* Iranian dissidents accuse Iraq of "murderous attack"

* At least 10 killed in violent crackdown

* Iraqi military says soldiers were provoked, threatened

By Khalid al-Ansary

CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq, April 9 (Reuters) - Dozens of exiled Iranians shouted "Killers! Killers!" at Iraqi soldiers guarding their desert camp on Saturday as top military brass defended a violent crackdown in which at least 10 people were killed.

Some 3,500 people live in the dusty, 25-year-old camp, base of the People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) guerrilla group that opposes Iran's Shi'ite cleric leaders.

Stuck in Iraq since the 1980s when Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein gave the dissidents shelter, the PMOI residents are a thorn in the side of the current Baghdad government which has close ties with Tehran and wants them out.

Iraqi forces clashed with camp residents on Friday, triggering an international outcry. [ID:nLDE73716T]

Details remain sketchy, but the PMOI says 33 people died in what it calls a "murderous attack" on defenceless people. An Iraqi hospital source said at least 10 were killed, most by gunfire. Washington blamed the Baghdad government for the bloodshed.

Major-General Ali Ghaidan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, told reporters invited to tour the camp that three residents were killed. He said fighting was provoked by residents and broke out after government forces tried to reclaim land from the camp and return it to farmers who owned it.

"Put the killers on trial," residents shouted at a group of journalists bussed in to Camp Ashraf, located in the restive Diyala province about 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in an area largely inaccessible to journalists.

Men, women and children held up photos of apparent victims, and signs condemning the violence.

"Stop right here and let us tell the crimes," one banner said in English. But heavily armed soldiers held the residents back from the media and pushed them behind a metal gate. Journalists were not allowed to speak to them.

"PROVOKED"

Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said security forces had come in peace, but said: "Our military forces were provoked, threatened and insulted."

Ghaidan said soldiers fought back when camp residents armed with knives, batons and metal bars threatened them. He said anti-riot troops fought back using batons, smoke bombs and water cannon. He denied that firearms had been used.

He added that three residents had been killed when they were run over by military vehicles but gave no details.

Thaier Ahmed, a 44-year-old local farmer brought to the camp by the military to speak to journalists, said his family had owned the land since 1947. "The past government took it away and gave it to the PMOI. ... We used to grow wheat and barley and use some of it for grazing. I will use it again now."

Ashraf has been a sore point for Washington, Baghdad and Tehran for years. Iran, Iraq and the United States consider the PMOI a terrorist organization.

The group surrendered weapons to U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fate of Ashraf's residents has been in question since Iraq took over the camp from U.S. forces in 2009 under a bilateral security pact.

Rights advocates said earlier this year the United Nations and the United States should take on protection of the camp to avert a tragedy which could lead to the deaths of residents.

Ad Melkert, U.N. special envoy for Iraq, urged the country at Friday's Security Council debate to allow the United Nations UNAMI mission to monitor the situation at the camp.

The Defence Ministry took the visiting journalists on a tour of the camp perimeter, but only in the area taken back by the military which was largely a wasteland, dotted with torched tents and caravans the military said residents had burnt down.

Reporters could only view the main camp from a distance, obscured by an earthen wall. Little was visible apart from a mosque, whose minarets rose above the camp.

As the bus carrying the journalists drove towards the front gate to leave, camp residents pushed through the security barriers and hurled themselves at the vehicle, knocking at the windows and calling to the reporters.

"Traitors!", they shouted. "Traitors!" (Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Caroline Drees; Editing by Jim Loney and Mike Nesbit)

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