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Angry Iranian Protesters Set Themselves on Fire in Paris - 2003-06-18

Three Iranian dissidents set themselves on fire in Paris to protest a French crackdown on an Iranian opposition group with alleged links to terrorism. French authorities have released most members of the opposition People's Mujahedeen group who were arrested the day before.

Dozens of angry Iranian dissidents protested outside France's counter-espionage office in Paris, where 26 senior members of the Iranian People's Mujahedeen group remain under arrest. More than 125 other members of the group have been released, following their arrest Tuesday outside Paris.

Two women and a man tried to burn themselves to death, to register their outrage. One of the women died, and the other two protesters were severely burned.

Among those still under detention after Tuesday's crackdown are the wife and brother of Massoud Rajavi. He is leader of an armed Iranian resistance movement, known as Mujahedeen Khalq. Until the war in Iraq, Mr. Rajavi's group had been based outside Baghdad, where his group launched intermittent attacks in Iran.

Since the war, Mr. Rajavi's whereabouts are uncertain. The People's Mujahedeen is considered the political branch of Mr. Rajavi's movement, with his wife, Maryam, at its head.

On Tuesday, in addition to the arrests, French police seized more than $6 million from various sites owned by the group. France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, defended the arrests, saying the group wanted to stage terrorist operations from the Paris suburbs, where the People's Mujahedeen has its international headquarters.

During an interview on French radio, an Iranian protester accused French authorities of making dissidents pay for a new effort to improve relations with Iran's clerical regime.

Several human rights groups and leading Iranian opposition figures have also criticized the arrests, which were protested by Iranian dissidents elsewhere in Europe. They question why the French government is cracking down on a group that has been tolerated here for the past two decades.

Some experts suggest Paris is trying to score points with the Iranian government, at a time when Teheran is under pressure to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors. Analysts also suggest the arrests may improve rocky French ties with Washington, which has praised the French crackdown against the mujahedeen group.

The French government has until Saturday to press charges against those detained. Otherwise it must release them.