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The French government confirmed Wednesday that it has expelled illegal Afghan immigrants in its first joint deportation flight with Britain.  Oposition politicians and human rights groups have harshly criticized the move, which comes amid ongoing violence in Afghanistan.

The deportation was widely anticipated, but the French government had refused to confirm that it would be expelling Afghan illegal immigrants until Wednesday.  Immigration Minister Eric Besson told Europe One radio that three Afghan men had been put on a plane that had been chartered by the British government. The plane was also carrying illegal Afghan immigrants living in Britain.

Besson said a fourth Afghan had been slated to be expelled as well, but was held back at the last minute.  He said those expelled had lost their appeals against deportation, including one before the European Court of Human Rights.  He will not rule out future deportation flights with Britain.  The French government argues it is trying to crack down on human smuggling rings and that illegal immigrants are given every legal recourse to remain in France.

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The expulsions have sparked widespread outcry on the part of human rights groups and opposition politicians, including Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. The French rights group France Terre d'Asile has gathered thousands of signatures in a petition against deportation.

Marie-Helene Senay, communications director for France Terre d'Asile, says it is simply wrong to deport Afghans back to their conflict-torn country -- even if they do not meet asylum requirements in France.

"We think the situation in Afghanistan does not [warrant] the return of Afghan people in good security. We know the situation over there is the worst we have ever known since 2001," she said.    "We know there is still war everywhere, that the police and the security forces cannot maintain the country in a stable position. So we really wonder what kind of security we can [have] for the people we send back there," she added.

The deportations come as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his main political rival have agreed to a runoff election scheduled for early November -- a move observers hope will end the political crisis there. Meanwhile, the United Nations and the European Union's justice commissioner say European governments should emphasize granting Afghan immigrants asylum rights -- rather then rounding them up for possible expulsion.