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Iraqi defectors languish in Israeli jail

Twenty-four Iraqis, mostly army deserters, who were imprisoned when they sought political asylum in Israel, have just ended a hunger strike to press their claim to stay in the country. The Israeli government, suspecting that some may be Iraqi age nts, says they must stay in jail unless another country accepts them.

The hunger-strikers belong to a group which has gradually formed in Ayelon prison in Ramla between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the past three years because every few months an Iraqi deserter makes his way through Jordan, splashes across the river and surrenders to Israeli troops rather than risk being returned to Iraq.

The journey is not risk-free. One man was shot in the arm and a second stepped on a mine, but since 1992 no fewer than 31 Iraqis, all but a few soldiers, have given themselves up to the arch-enemies of Saddam Hussein. Eric Bar-Chen, the police spokesman,says: "They have been trickling in, mostly in the last year-and-a-half, crossing where they can be seen and then putting up their hands."

Some Israeli officials are sympathetic. "They cannot go back to Iraq where they will be hanged," says Iris Biber, the prison service spokeswoman, but sympathy has not led to their release. Salah Khaddim al-Tai, now in his late twenties, has been in the jail since he crossed the Jordan river in November 1992. The prisoners' lawyer, Zvi Rish, who is pleading their case before the Supreme Court, says the government is claiming they are a security threat.

In desperation, 24 of the 31 Iraqis in Ayelon went on hunger strike last week, saying they would rather die than be denied political asylum and have to stay in prison.

Mr Rish, for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says he told the Iraqis the action might prejudice the court against them and give the impression to countries to which they have applied for asylum that they were trouble-makers. The hunger strikers have ended their fast, but the Supreme Court has delayed hearing their case until May. The Israelis will not hand them back to Jordan but is chary of letting them out of prison.

Australia and the US are considering the requests for asylum. In some ways they are lucky. Two Sudanese who failed to get through an Israeli checkpoint last year were later returned by Jordan to Khartoum - where they were executed.