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Kurds allowed to leave French camp

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February 22, 2001 


FREJUS, France (AP) Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds whose ship ran aground on the Mediterranean shore last weekend lined up at phone booths and strolled through this French Riviera town Wednesday after authorities freed them from confinement at a military camp.

Clutching their belongings in plastic bags, many of the refugees ventured slowly into their first day of freedom since washing up Saturday in a dilapidated freighter that was quickly abandoned by captain and crew.

On Tuesday, authorities began handing out papers allowing the more than 900 Iraqi Kurds refugees to leave the camp and take eight days to apply for political asylum.

Most appeared in no rush to get out, and many returned to the shelter for a hot lunch provided by Red Cross aid workers Wednesday.

``We're free, but we don't know what to do,'' said Faraidoun Hassan, 36, who was lingering around the camp. ``But it's nice to smell freedom.''

After lunch, many families walked into town, where they changed foreign currencies into French francs, bought candy for their children and called relatives overseas.

Evelyn LeRoy, who runs a kiosk in Frejus, said she had sold $315 worth of prepaid telephone cards.

``I've never sold so many phone cards in my life. I'm about to run out,'' LeRoy said.

French police had initially said all 910 passengers on the boat were Iraqis, but they said Wednesday that they believed two were Palestinians. Palestinians are ineligible for refugee status in France, and the two were kept in the camp and face a court hearing, said Assistant Police Chief Philippe Schaefer, who is in charge of the shelter.

While the government evaluates the others' asylum applications, they will be eligible for health and other benefits and be allowed to stay in France until a decision is made on their status. Those who do not apply can be deported.

``Now they find themselves in the ordinary situation of asylum seekers without lodging, without money, and without work,'' said Jean-Marc Dupeaux, secretary general for the French aid group, CIMADE.

Dupeaux told a press conference in Paris that the wait for political asylum could take up to five months.

The Labor Ministry said it would help the immigrants obtain temporary housing and hoped to do so by the end of the week.

French border police say criminal gangs operating in Turkey and Iraq were responsible for smuggling the Kurds into France.

Investigators have been unable to track down the boat's captain and crew, who they believe deliberately beached the rusty freighter near the village of Saint Raphael. The Figaro newspaper on Wednesday said the boat's owner is the director of a Syrian company.

The Iraqi captain and five Turkish crewmen remain unidentified, Figaro said. The refugees were not able to help with identifications because the crew members wore masks during the voyage.

Many French politicians and public figures have expressed support for the refugees, who arrived on the chic Mediterranean coast after a weeklong voyage in the cramped, dark holds of the ship.

In Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament, a group of 100 Turkish and Kurdish protesters began a hunger strike on Wednesday in support of the refugees, police said.

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