Page last updated at 15:11 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 16:11 UK

US embassy hunger strikers defiant

By John McManus
BBC News

Hunger strikers protesting outside the US embassy in London say they will stay there until their demands are met - until the death, if necessary.

People on hunger strike
The hunger strikers lay in beds

Ten protestors from the Iranian community have been refusing food for 19 days, and one woman has already received treatment in hospital.

The group wants the US government to take responsibility for a refugee camp in Iraq called Ashraf, which houses more than 3,000 members of the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), or Mojahedin-e Khalq.

The hunger strikers are all laid out on camp beds under an awning, directly opposite the embassy's main entrance.

Most of them are huddled under blankets, though a few are watching television pictures of what they say is violence by Iraqi police inside Ashraf.

A few who left their beds appeared to walk with difficulty, and looked pale and tired.

'Axes and chains'

Farzaneh Hosseini is a spokesperson for the hunger strikers, of whom her father is one. They are drinking fluids but are prepared to continue refusing food for as long as necessary, she said.

Her sister and two aunts are among the residents in Ashraf, though she hasn't heard from them in weeks. They fled to Ashraf after their brothers were executed for involvement in opposition demonstrations.

The camp was recently raided by Iraqi forces who say they were trying to establish a police presence. Camp residents said several people were killed.

Farzaneh disputes the reasons that the Iraqi government gave for entering the camp.

Zohreh Moalemi
We have all the evidence showing our people were injured and killed
Zohreh Moalemi
Hunger striker

"They already had police posts outside the camp, it was already surrounded. There's no justification for carrying axes and chains and beating people to death."

Another woman, Zohreh Moalemi, who is on hunger strike, added: "We have all the evidence showing our people were injured and killed."

The people in Ashraf want the current Iranian regime overthrown, said Farzaneh.

She wants the US government to take over control of the camp and guarantee the safety of its residents, otherwise the Iraqi administration will close the camp and forcibly return them to Iran.

"The Iranian regime has a major influence in Iraqi affairs and senior Iraqi officials are determined to comply with the wishes of their Iranian counterparts."

Saddam welcome

Formed in 1965 to oppose the Shah, the People's Mujahideen of Iran soon developed its own philosophy combining Marxism and radical Islam. Now, it advocates a secular government.

The group took part in the Islamic Revolution and some members stood in the 1980 general elections. But they soon fell foul of the new Islamic regime and some of its original leaders were executed.

The PMOI set up a base in Ashraf camp in the 1980s. The exiles' presence was welcomed by former president, Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a war against Iran at the time.

He funded and armed the PMOI's military wing, the National Liberation Army of Iran, which fought alongside Iraqi troops.

Fighting with the Iranians were members of the two main Iraqi Shia political groups which now lead the country's government.

During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the camp at Ashraf was bombed by coalition forces. PMOI leaders eventually agreed a ceasefire and its members were disarmed.

The US then handed responsibility for the camp to the Iraqi government earlier this year.

The US government doesn't have the legal right to take over Ashraf
US embassy spokesman

Relations between Iran and Iraq have improved, and the Iraqi government has repeatedly vowed to close the camp.

On the 28 July, Iraqi forces entered the camp, and the PMOI says that nine people were killed, and many more injured.

Although the PMOI has been removed from the UK's register of proscribed terrorist organisations, it remains on the US list.

The US government claims that the National Liberation Army was funded by Saddam Hussein until 2003, but the group says it gave up violent struggle in 2001.

US embassy spokesman Matt Gosho confirmed that although officials have not met with any of the protestors on their doorstep, their counterparts in Baghdad are engaging with the Iraqi government to ensure the Ashraf residents are treated humanely.

"The US government doesn't have the legal right to take over Ashraf... it remains a sovereign issue for Iraq."

But the hunger strikers, who are approaching the end of their third week of protests, are adamant they won't leave until their demands are met.



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