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Iranian exile group ready to leave Iraq's Camp Ashraf, leader says

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 7:55 AM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
A demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on December 10, 2011 to demand the protection of Camp Ashraf.
A demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on December 10, 2011 to demand the protection of Camp Ashraf.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Camp Ashraf has been home to members of an Iranian opposition group since 1986
  • A leader of the group says the first 400 residents are ready to leave the camp
  • U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urges all parties to push ahead without delay
  • The residents will move to a former U.S. military camp near Baghdad, then be resettled overseas

Baghdad (CNN) -- A leader of an exiled Iranian opposition group said Thursday that members living in a long-standing camp in Iraq are ready to begin moving to a new temporary site, under a plan agreed to with the United Nations.

Maryam Rajavi, the group's Paris-based leader, said 400 people had agreed to move from Camp Ashraf, in central Iraq, to a former U.S. military base "at the earliest possible time."

From there, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will begin efforts to resettle the group outside of the country.

Camp Ashraf has been home to members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, for more than 25 years. More than 3,000 exiles, described as Iranian resistance figures and their sympathizers, live at the camp.

The MEK has been on the U.S. terrorism list since 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992. However, since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf "noncombatants" and "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions.

Rajavi said the first group of residents was ready to move to the new temporary camp, near Baghdad International Airport, but said further assurances were needed from the United Nations and Iraqi government before everyone could relocate.

These include guarantees regarding the infrastructure of the camp and a commitment that no Iraqi police will remain inside the new site, in order to ensure the security of the residents, she said.

The group believes the current regime in Iraq, under orders from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has previously staged deadly attacks against Camp Ashraf.

The Iraqi government has extended a deadline for the camp to close -- which originally was slated for the end of December -- to April 30, 2012.

A statement from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued Wednesday urged all parties to push forward with the relocation process "without delay."

Ban "urges the Iraqi authorities and the residents of Camp Ashraf to continue to cooperate and complete the process in a peaceful manner," the statement said.

"The secretary-general reiterates that the government of Iraq bears the primary responsibility for the security and the welfare of the residents of Camp Ashraf.

"At the same time, the residents of Camp Ashraf also bear a responsibility to abide by the laws of Iraq. Any provocation or violence must be avoided and would be unacceptable."

The U.N.'s refugee agency confirmed that the camp's infrastructure and facilities were in line with international humanitarian standards at the end of January, his statement added.

The plan to relocate its residents was drawn up under Martin Kobler, Ban's special representative and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), in cooperation with Iraq's government, the United States and the European Union.

Camp Ashraf was established in 1986 after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invited members of the MEK to relocate to Iraq in an effort to undermine the Iranian government, which was then at war with Iraq. Iran also considers the group to be a terrorist organization.

A U.N. commission on refugees has described the residents as "formal asylum seekers" from persecution by the regime in Iran.

The temporary facility, at what was formerly the U.S.-run Camp Liberty, will remain open for an unspecified period of time, though a senior U.S. administration official said in December that there were plans to keep it open until all of the camp residents were resettled.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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