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Gangs blamed in refugee smuggling

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FREJUS, France — Criminal gangs operating in Turkey and Iraq were behind the smuggling of hundreds of Iraqi Kurds who landed in France after a weeklong journey in a decrepit freighter without toilets or provisions, border police said Sunday.

The burgeoning trade of immigrant smuggling hit French shores in an unprecedented way Saturday, when hundreds of Kurds desperate to leave Iraq successfully slipped into France on the "East Sea," a decrepit ship that ran aground off the country's posh Riviera.

"It's an Iraqi-Turkish mafia ring that brought 910 people on the boat that ran aground," said Daniel Chaze, deputy central director of the French border police. "We know the captain's name. Police are working with Interpol to find him and the ship owner."

Gangs specializing in people smuggling recruited the Kurds from their homes in northern Iraq, Chaze said. Those willing to pay between $200 and $300 were brought to the Turkish border.

A Turkish smuggling ring then loaded the refugees onto an aging, Cambodian-registered freighter for the weeklong voyage by sea. The refugees were charged up to $2,000 each for the trip. They had no idea where they were going.

About 150 Red Cross officials were dispatched to a military camp where the refugees were given temporary shelter. Eric Painsec, head of aid operations for the French Red Cross, said most were in satisfactory health, although many suffered from fatigue.

"Some of them are very weak because they have not eaten for several days," he said.

Many of the immigrants were hesitant to speak about the difficult voyage. Magjid Salah, 65, said he paid $10,000 for his family of nine, including his 100-year-old mother, to make the voyage.

"From Iraq we went into Turkey about two weeks ago," Salah said, speaking in the shelter's cafeteria, where he was getting bread for his mother. "We were locked up in a truck. We didn't know where we were going and if it was day or night."

Ismail, a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd who traveled with his wife and three children, said the refugees were kicked and threatened while on board. He declined to give his last name.

"I want to go where there is democracy," he said, cradling his 2-year-old daughter Nadia. "I would rather die than go back there."

France was caught off guard when the freighter, whose human cargo included 480 children, ran aground in the early morning darkness. It was the nation's first experience with such a mass wave of illegal immigrants, and soon after, politicians began squabbling about what to do.

Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, a conservative, called for the refugees to be immediately repatriated. "If we accept them on our territory, we will open the floodgates," he said.

But Patrick Devedjian, spokesman for the conservative Rally for the Republic party of President Jacques Chirac, said the refugees should be given a humanitarian welcome.

"They were rejected by countries that don't accept minorities," he said. "You don't want to throw them into the sea, do you?"

A number of Frejus residents were moved by the refugees' plight, and started showing up Sunday with donations of clothing and toys.