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UK, Denmark eye visas for Afghan interpreters

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SYLVIA HUI | May 22, 2013 11:26 AM EST | AP

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LONDON — Britain and Denmark proposed Wednesday to give hundreds of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside their troops the right to settle in the U.K. and Denmark in recognition of the risks they face if they stay in their war-battered homeland.

The plans were welcomed by activists in Britain who had argued the U.K. was turning its back on Afghan interpreters and giving them a worse deal than Iraqis who had worked with British forces.

Britain, which contributes the second-largest number of troops to NATO's operation in Afghanistan after the U.S., is preparing to end its combat role there by the end of 2014. Prominent lawmakers and activists have called for Afghan interpreters to be offered settlement options and criticized the British government for failing to address or account for Taliban reprisals and other dangers.

"The prime minister has been very clear that we should not turn our backs on those who have trod the same path as our soldiers in Helmand, consistently putting their lives at risk to help our troops achieve their mission," a statement from Prime Minister David Cameron's office at Downing Street said Wednesday, referring to the volatile southern Helmand province.

The proposals would allow about 600 interpreters who have worked on the front lines in Afghanistan for more than a year to relocate to Britain on a five-year visa. Those who do not meet the requirement will get a training and education package with the Afghan security forces and wages equivalent to their current salary, or be given 18 months' salary.

"These proposals give them a choice: The opportunity to go on working in Afghanistan, learning new skills and to go on rebuilding their country, or to come and make a new start in Britain," Downing Street said.

In recent months, the Taliban have launched a fierce offensive against the Afghan government they want to overthrow, unleashing a wave of assassinations and bombings. Insurgents have also been attacking police positions around the country, seeking to seize territory and weaken the government before the pullout of most international troops from the country by the end of next year.

The statement appeared to signal a change of heart by Cameron, who earlier this month told reporters he believed most Afghan interpreters should stay in their country to help rebuild after years of conflict.

Those remarks hit a nerve in Britain, coming as tens of thousands of people signed a petition urging immediate asylum for Afghan translators and as lawyers for Afghan interpreters launched a legal bid challenging the U.K. government's decision not to give them the same assistance awarded to Iraqi interpreters.

Iraqis who qualified for assistance were eligible for a one-time package of financial assistance or exceptional indefinite leave to enter the U.K., outside normal immigration rules.

Downing Street said Wednesday that officials are expected to finalize the proposals for Afghan interpreters within days, but British media, quoting government sources, reported that the plans have already been approved.

Some welcomed Britain's move though others raised concerns that many interpreters who do not qualify for the plans may be left in danger.

Rosa Curling, a lawyer representing three Afghan interpreters who launched a court case on the issue, called the announcement a step in the right direction but said limiting the offer to front-line staff would offer no protection to Afghan translators who don't meet that criteria.

"These interpreters remain at risk from threats from the Taliban and to refuse them access to the same resettlement options would be unacceptable," she said.

Officials in Denmark, which deploys forces to Afghanistan under British command, also announced similar proposals Wednesday. Afghans who worked as interpreters for Danish forces in Helmand would be granted visas to Denmark, where they can apply for asylum, Defense Minister Nick Haekkerup said.

"We do not have a judicial responsibility but a moral obligation to help," Haekkerup said.

The minister had no estimate of how many Afghans would be affected.

Denmark is due to pull out of combat operations in Afghanistan in August, leaving 300 soldiers to train Afghan forces.

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Associated Press writers Cassandra Vinograd in London and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.