March 16, 2009 / 2:00 PM / 11 years ago

Iraqi army besieges Iranian exile camp: residents

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi forces have besieged a camp north of Baghdad housing members of an Iranian opposition group, residents and a government source said, while the national security adviser reiterated a vow to shut it down.

A source at Iraq’s Interior Ministry said Iraqi soldiers surrounded Camp Ashraf last Thursday after residents resisted an attempt to clear them out of one building inside it. The soldiers were blocking fuel and medicines getting in, he said.

National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie pledged in January to close the camp, home to 3,500 people, by late March.

“Iraqi forces have made a siege around the camp. No one is allowed to enter or leave,” the ministry source said late on Sunday. “We have instructions from Mowaffaq al-Rubaie to seal it off.”

Leaders of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), which has been based at Ashraf for around two decades, said Iraqi security forces hit residents with electric batons.

“They threatened them to leave, blocked basic necessities from coming in and (sent) trucks back: these are violations of the Geneva Convention,” Shahriar Kia, spokesman for the group in the camp, said by telephone.

The interior ministry source also said Iraqi troops had beaten residents before U.S. forces helping guard the camp stepped in.

FATE IN LIMBO

But in a statement, Rubaie denied that Iraqi forces had attacked anyone or blocked any humanitarian supplies.

“Their (the PMOI’s) statements distort the facts and confirm the organization’s attempts to interfere in Iraq’s affairs,” he said. “The Iraqi government will not go back on its decision to close Camp Ashraf.”

On a visit to Iran on January 23, Rubaie said the camp would be “part of history within two months.”

The fate of Ashraf’s residents has been in limbo since Iraq took it over from U.S. forces this year. Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim leaders are friendly with Tehran, which wants the camp closed and a list of wanted PMOI members handed over for trial.

Human rights groups say driving residents out against their will would violate international law.

The government views the PMOI as terrorists, as do the United States and Iran. Last month the European Union agreed to take the group off its list of terrorist organizations, following a protracted legal battle.

The PMOI began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to Iran’s Shah but fell out with Shi’ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Tim Cocks, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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