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Iraqi Police Storm Ashraf – Iraqi troops seize Iranian exiles’ camp

Iraqi soldiers and riot police stormed a camp housing Iran’s main exiled opposition yesterday, triggering violent clashes that left at least 260 people wounded.

Members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq clash with Iraqi police inside Camp Ashraf yesterday. The disturbance at the base north of Baghdad left at least 260 people wounded

The seizure of Camp Ashraf, which was disarmed by the United States in 2003 and surrounded by U. S. forces until recently, comes after months of a tense standoff at the base north of Baghdad.

"After the failure of negotiations with the Mujahedin to enter peacefully, the Iraqi army entered Camp Ashraf with force and it now controls all of the interior and all entrances to the camp," an Iraqi military source said.

The spokesman said two battalions of 400 soldiers each, plus 200 riot police, took part in the operation, which was ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office.

The offensive followed a declaration by the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — also known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran — that it was ready to return to Iran if the authorities there would guarantee its members would not be abused.

The MEK said in a statement that Iraqi police had launched an attack on Ashraf by firing "pepper gas," with vehicles demolishing walls while police on foot forced their way into the camp.

It also coincided with a visit to Iraq by U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but the top U. S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said the U. S. military had no advance warning.

Police captain Firaz al-Atbi, from the restive province of Diyala where Ashraf is located, said about 200 residents were injured when riot police called in by the army to quell unrest began beating them.

About 60 members of Iraq’s security forces were also wounded, 20 seriously, he said, adding that 50 camp residents were detained.

Shahriar Kia, a spokesman for the MEK, said four people had been shot dead and about 300 others were injured. Capt. Atbi, however, denied the four deaths.

"We are so worried that they might take the people arrested to the Iranian regime and hand them over," Mr. Kia said by telephone from Camp Ashraf.

A provincial police official said residents were throwing bricks at Iraqi security forces.

The official said Diyala provincial police chief General Abdul Hussein al-Shamari had entered the camp to try to negotiate with the MEK to end the violence. A company of U. S. soldiers had overseen the camp until handing over control three months ago to Iraqi security forces as part of the drawdown of U. S. troops, Gen. Odierno said.

The Iraqi authorities had pledged to the Americans previously that they "would deal with the MEK in a humane fashion," he said, adding that there were U. S. observers on the scene.

U. S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was "closely monitoring" the seizure, and added that the Iraqi government had "stated to us that no Camp Ashraf resident will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution."

Ashraf is home to about 3,500 MEK supporters and their families.Four shot dead, opposition spokesman says

Ali Al-Tuwaijri, Agence France-Presse

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