UN checks claims that UK officials assaulted Iraqis

The United Nations refugee agency is investigating claims that Iraqi asylum seekers were assaulted by British officials on a plane taking them back to Iraq.

Fourteen asylum seekers described "near identical" experiences of mistreatment to lawyers for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Baghdad. "We've met with six of them and saw fresh bruises that indicated mistreatment could have occurred," said the organisation's spokesman, Andrej Mahecic. "All those interviewed reported that 42 deportees were forcibly returned to Baghdad against their will."

Mr Mahecic added that the UNHCR has told governments that they should not return asylum seekers to Baghdad and Iraq's five central provinces because the area is not secure enough for their return.

One of the failed asylum seekers, Sherwan Abdullah, claimed he and others had been beaten by UK Border Agency staff trying to force them off the plane in Baghdad. "They was grabbing us, they told us if you don't come down, we're going to beat you badly," said Mr Abdullah. "This happened on the plane. If somebody wasn't willing to come out, they grabbed them, they grab the neck, they nearly killed them, these people could not breathe."

Matthew Coats, head of immigration at the UK Border Agency, declined to comment about the claims.

But he insisted: "The UK Border Agency only ever returns those who both the agency and the courts are satisfied do not need our protection and refuse to leave voluntarily. We are determined to remove those with no right to be in the UK. In 2008 the courts found that we were able to return people to Iraq. The security situation in Iraq is significantly better now than it was in 2008 and assisted voluntary returns to Iraq have increased."