French police seize 158 Iranians in raid on 'terror group'

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The Independent Online

Heavily armed French police have rounded up 158 members of an Iranian armed opposition group, the People's Mujahedin,in the most spectacular raids of their kind for more than 30 years.

More than 1,000 police officers smashed their way into a large private compound in Auvers-sur-Oise, north-west of Paris, yesterday and arrested, among others, Maryam Rajavi, the public face of the group and wife of the shadowy Mujahedin leader, Massoud Rajavi.

The detainees also included Saleh Rajavi, Massoud Rajavi's brother, who is head of the group in France. The Interior Ministry said the suspects were being investigated for "preparing acts of terrorism and for financing a terrorist enterprise".

The Mujahedin, who also call themselves the National Iranian Resistance Council, are listed by the EU and the United States as a terrorist organisation. They have, none the less, been allowed to operate with relative freedom in France, Britain and the US for more than 20 years.

The timing of the raids suggests an attempt by France to remove a source of Western friction with Iran while Tehran is under pressure from both the US and EU to co-operate with the international community on its nuclear arms programme. Whether the US will appreciate such a gesture by France is uncertain.

A spokesman in London for the Mujahedin, a sect-like organisation which claims to be both Islamist and Marxist, accused France of trying to "curry favour" with what he called the "terrorist" regime in Tehran.

"It is a [French] political gesture to Tehran ... and a cold shower for the Americans," said an independent Iranian political analyst, Daryouch Abdali.

French officials said the raids had nothing to do either with the nuclear stand-off with Iran or the recent riots by young people in Tehran and other Iranian cities. They said the raids had been planned a month ago, based on an investigation into suspected terrorist activities which was launched in 2001.

The Mujahedin were closely allied with the deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who allowed them to operate from military camps near Baghdad and close to the Iran-Iraq border. The group has no connection with al-Qa'ida, claiming to represent a moderate and socialist version of Islam, which promotes democracy and the rights of women. Their bases were, none the less, attacked by US planes during the Iraqi war.

Earlier this month, the US and the Mujahedin agreed a ceasefire but the State Department said it had no intention of working with the group to try to topple the clerical regime in Tehran.

Just after 6am yesterday, French security police, supported by elite units of the gendarmerie and national police force, smashed into the Mujahedin compound in Auvers, consisting of three villas and 30 small bungalows. Simultaneous raids were mounted in other parts of the Paris area. Police said they had seized $1.3m (£800,000) in $50 notes, 100 satellite dishes and a "large quantity" of computer equipment. The raids were called Operation Theo, possibly after Vincent van Gogh's brother of the same name. Vincent committed suicide in Auvers in 1890 and the two brothers are buried in the town's cemetery.

The raids were ordered by France' leading anti-terrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière. A Mujahedin spokesman said in London: "The individuals arrested in the unjustifiable raids were all in France legally and had not conducted any illegal activity whatsoever."

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