Ousted Soviet puppet claims social security

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THE former prime minister of Afghanistan, whose government Britain never recognised and spent millions of pounds trying to overthrow, is living in north London on social security.

Sultan Ali Khestmand, 58, was a central figure in Afghanistan's left-wing revolution and prime minister during the Soviet occupation. Having arrived in Britain as a refugee a year ago, he is living in a Brent council flat in Wembley. He receives housing benefit and income support.

Mr Khestmand, whose government was branded by Britain as a Soviet puppet regime, said he flew to London on a transit visa he collected from the British Embassy in Kiev. He said he had no possessions, friends helped him buy his air ticket and he carried less than dollars 100 (about pounds 60) in his pocket when he arrived at Heathrow. His diplomatic passport listed his profession as 'former prime minister'.

An attempt to settle in Paris, where his brother was charge d'affaires at the Afghan embassy, was rejected by the French government because it said it could not guarantee his safety. He said the Home Office knew of his whereabouts in London and checked his movements from time to time. He also had a brother living as a refugee in the Netherlands.

We met in the BBC canteen after he had addressed a seminar at the London School of Economics on Tadjikistan, the former Soviet republic which borders Afghanistan. He said he was only beginning to adjust to life in Britain, adding that he was invited from time to time to make speeches about his role during the Soviet period in Afghanistan.

He decided to seek asylum and refugee status in Britain because he had 'no chance to live safely in Afghanistan' and because he could speak a little English. He added that he also had great respect for Britain's stand on human rights.

The British authorities had been 'very good to me. As a refugee I was given a lump sum of money and I now have a weekly allowance. I am not discriminated against nor do I have any privileges as former prime minister.'

He lives with his daughter, 26, a widow with two children and his son, 22, a medical student; they joined their father after he came to Britain. Most of his day is spent helping his family, he said.

Mr Khestmand survived an assassination attempt in Kabul in February 1992, two months before the regime of President Najibullah was overthrown by anti-communist insurgents - Mrs Thatcher's 'freedom fighters' who Britain had backed with military aid, training, and money.

After being shot while leaving a mosque, Mr Khestmand was flown to Moscow for treatment by Russian and French doctors. A bullet had entered the back of his head, leaving him paralysed down one side of his face. He is on an NHS waiting list for a third and, he hopes, final operation.

A Home office spokeswoman said that, as soon as Mr Khestmand had been granted asylum, 'he would get the same benefits everyone else in this country is entitled to.'

(Photograph omitted)