COPENHAGEN Denmark said on Friday it secretly airlifted out of Iraq about 200 translators and other Iraqi employees of its troops in Iraq and their relatives this week and most were expected to seek asylum in the Nordic nation.
"Out of concern for the interpreters and their families' security as well as the security of the Danish base in Iraq, the Defence Ministry has chosen to inform the public after the interpreters and others had left Iraq," the Denmark Defence Ministry said in a statement.
It said the airlift involved "about 200" people. A ministry spokesman reached by telephone could not provide an exact number but said most of the Iraqis brought to Denmark were translators and their families.
Danish Ambassador to Iraq Bo Eric Weber said the moved followed the killing in December of an Iraqi who had worked with the Danes as an interpreter. Around 80 of those flown out of the country were employed and the rest were family members, he said.
"They had been working for us for about four years, and those who felt their security in Iraq was threatened have been granted visas to go to Denmark" where they can apply for asylum, Weber told Reuters.
Britain and the United States have been reluctant to take large numbers of Iraqi refugees, while some European countries have toughened their stance on taking them in.
Last month the Danish government reached a deal with the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party (DPP) to offer visas to Iraqi interpreters who have aided Danish troops in Iraq out of concern they will be targeted by insurgents when the Danish contingent withdraws in August.
Denmark's centre-right government had faced mounting pressure to find a way to help the Iraqis despite the small country's restrictive immigration policy and its increasingly problematic relationship with the DPP.
Denmark has about 470 soldiers in southern Iraq, serving under British command. It will withdraw all of its ground troops from Iraq by August and replace them with a small helicopter unit of 55 soldiers.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in May that it could accept as many as 7,000 refugees through the 2007 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, after being criticized for accepting only 202 last year.
Sweden, which has more Iraqi refugees than any other country in Europe, tightened its policy earlier this month when its migration board ruled that Iraqis seeking asylum must prove they face personal risk in their homeland to avoid being sent back.
Germany earlier this year revoked the refugee status of more than 18,000 Iraqis it deemed criminals, endangering interior German security or able to return to the more peaceful northern Iraq.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to 2 million Iraqis have moved to neighboring countries before and since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while 1.7 million are internally displaced.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Baghdad)