France moves quickly to decide fate of Kurds

French authorities are moving quickly to decide the fate of 910 Kurdish immigrants dumped on the Riviera on Saturday, and have upped humanitarian aid as they sift through hundreds of applications for asylum.

France pledged on Monday not to repatriate the Kurds, but Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said there would be no "bonus" for those who smuggled them there.

"Our first goal is a humanitarian one, we must welcome these men, women and children who arrived on our shores in conditions of personal distress," he said.

"But we have to treat this issue on a nationwide and Europe-wide basis so as not to offer a bonus (by unconditionally allowing the refugees in) to the criminals who smuggled them in," Jospin told reporters.

A local official said late on Monday authorities had increased the amount of supplies for the refugees, including more showers, blankets, fuel and doctors.

He said hundreds of the refugees were expected in court on Wednesday for a decision by judges on how long they would be held, adding that some two-thirds of the files for asylum had been examined already.

According to its own law, France cannot hold the refugees for more than 20 days. If they cannot be expelled, they must be freed. French media said they were widely expected to head north to try to enter Britain.


Earlier relations between the new arrivals and their French hosts looked to be souring rapidly with some of the refugees blocking the entrance to their temporary camp to pressure France to improve their living conditions and start asylum proceedings.

French judicial sources said they had launched a legal procedure against those responsible for the boat voyage, and were investigating charges of aiding illegal immigration and endangering life.

It was not immediately clear who the investigation was targeting, but it seemed likely that it would involve the ship's captain and crew who deliberately drove it ashore and then fled before rescue teams arrived.

Police originally thought the captain and crew of the East Sea, the rusty freighter used to transport the Kurds from Turkey to France, were Greek. They later said they were probably Iraqi.

A manhunt has been launched and authorities are also seeking to track down the ship's owner, who is reported to be a Syrian.

Lawyers protested at being prevented from entering the camp by immigration authorities seeking to verify identities of the refugees who apparently all say they are from Iraq, a country to which France does not extradite illegal immigrants.

"We came to Europe to be free," one of the refugees told Reuters across a wiremesh fence. He said "thousands of (Kurdish) villages" in Iraq had been burned to the ground by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's forces.


The man, however, said not all of his fellow refugees were Iraqi Kurds. Some were Turkish nationals while others were from elsewhere in the Middle East, he said.

Their arrival has set off a fierce row among French politicians already immersed in a nationwide municipal election campaign in which law and order is a major issue.

Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant hinted late on Sunday that some of the refugees could be sent back to Turkey, where they embarked, or to Greece, tied to France by European Union regulations, if their ship had stopped there.

The government has temporarily housed the refugees, who include 480 children, in a military hangar in the Mediterranean town of Frejus, where many demonstrated silently for two hours during the morning.

"They are protesting over asylum. They want blankets because they are cold. They want their problems sorted out," said Dogan Memhet, an official interpreter for the Kurds.

Red Cross officials looking after the refugees condemned the protest.

"They are not hungry and not cold," said Simone Long, vice president of the Red Cross in France. "We are doing our best. They shouldn't exaggerate. They should respect the people who have taken them in."