The French police rounded up 14 exiled opponents of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Paris last month and dragged them, kicking and screaming, to the airport and a waiting chartered airplane.
As the plane took off, some of the refugees vowed to commit suicide, fearing they were being ferried to Iran and to certain execution.
But about six hours after leaving wintry Paris, the plane touched down in the tiny, steamy equatorial African country of Gabon, a one-time French colony.
"When they told us we were in Gabon, most of us still didn't know where we were," said one of the Iranians, Mitra Ariyafar, 25. "All I knew was that it was somewhere in Africa."
The Iranians did not fade quietly into the African night, however.
Holed up in the Monts du Cristal, a modern three-star hotel in the seaside capital, they have staged a hunger strike to protest their expulsion, which they considered part of a deal with the Khomeini government to free two French hostages held by a pro-Iranian group in Lebanon.
For nearly five weeks the Iranians, supporters of an Iranian resistance group known as the People's Moujahedeen, have refused food. They have vowed to fast until they are allowed to return to their homes and families in France.
Colleagues in Washington, Paris and London are staging similar strikes. In Paris, where about 40 strikers were in their 34th day Monday, nine have been hospitalized. Groups of 25 strikers each in London and Washington were in their 27th day.
By accepting France's political undesirables, the Gabonese government has found itself the unwitting host to an untidy international incident. Gabon's embassies abroad have received several threats in recent weeks, presumably from groups supporting the Khomeini regime.
Gabon's president, Omar Bongo, says he welcomed the Iranians to his country "out of a sense of compassion and humanity for their plight." But last month he begged them, "in the name of Islam," to call off the strike while he searched for a solution.
"If you die, people are going to say you loved France so much that you couldn't live somewhere else," he lectured them. "Here, too, we have people who are attached to France, but they do manage to live without going back."
The Iranians were not swayed.
"Our argument is not with Gabon, but with France," Said Assadi, a tall 33-year-old, said a few days ago as he sipped a glass of iced tomato juice in his air-conditioned hotel room.
Even though the weather outside was approaching 100 degrees with high humidity, Assadi was wearing charcoal-colored wool slacks, the same pair he had on when the French police arrested him Dec. 7.
The hunger strikers have grown steadily weaker. They are being rotated in and out of a nearby hospital for intravenous feeding, and several already are experiencing heart trouble and internal bleeding. Doctors treating them doubt whether they can live more than a few more weeks without eating.
Assadi's blood pressure has dropped dangerously low, and doctors have begun feeding him intravenously at the hotel.
"This isn't only a question of place, of being allowed to live in France," Assadi said. "This strike is a symbol of our strong objection to the French government bargaining with the Khomeini regime and with people's lives. All humankind must be opposed to this."
To publicize their protest, the Iranians stuck in Gabon have rented a video camera and two videocassette recorders. Supporters in the United States sent a Tele-Fax machine, which has been installed in Assadi's room to receive copies of newspaper articles.
The Iranian protesters left Paris with little money in their pockets and no extra clothing. While here, they have received money from friends and relatives. None of them knows for sure who will pay the hotel bill, but presumably either France or Gabon will pick up the tab.
Most of the 14 Iranians arrested and brought here on Dec. 8 had lived legally in France for years as political refugees. Assadi, for example, moved to Paris in 1979 and has a wife and 11-year-old son there. Ariyafar's husband and her parents remain in Paris.
Among the group expelled were two refugees who originally had been granted asylum by Britain and Sweden and were just visiting France. They were allowed to return to Europe a few days after arriving in Gabon.
Eleven of the 12 remaining Iranians, and three Turkish sympathizers of the Moujahedeen who also were deported to Gabon from France, have joined the hunger strike. (The lone non-striker, Ariyafar, has a serious asthma condition.)
'Immediate and Grave Threat'
In expelling the Moujahedeen members, the French Interior Ministry said their activities "constituted an immediate and grave threat to public order and harmed France's interests in the world." Such activities would violate the terms of their refugee status in France.
But the strikers insist that the expulsions were part of a secret deal. On Nov. 27, the two French hostages were released in Lebanon. A week later, the French allowed an Iranian Embassy official, who was wanted for questioning about a bombing that killed 13 people in Paris in 1986, to leave the country. The two countries had broken diplomatic relations over French efforts to question the man.
Then, a few days later, France deported the anti-Khomeini Iranians.
The French government has denied any deals with Iran and maintains that it did not exert pressure on Gabon to accept the Iranians.
"But it's the sort of thing you can only ask of an old friend," a French Foreign Ministry official said recently in Paris, "and Gabon is an old friend."
In a similar move a few years ago, France expelled several Basque separatists to Togo, also in West Africa. Over the years, such actions have tended to undermine the claims of African leaders in former French colonies that their countries are not the private preserves of France.
Ties to France
In Gabon, an oil-producing country of 1 million people about the size of Colorado, the French government provides about $100 million a year in aid and French nationals hold high positions in state-run companies.
Although some Gabonese questioned the wisdom of welcoming Iranians rejected by France, the shelter given the deportees hasn't caused any political trouble for Bongo, president here for the last 20 years.
Bongo, meanwhile, promises that the visitors' stay will only be temporary, and he has urged them to explore his country.
"It is not every day that the opportunity will be given you to be in Gabon," he has pointed out.
On Assadi's hotel table is a copy of the glossy Gabon guidebook for tourists, Le Gabon Aujourd'hui (Gabon Today), a gift of the hotel manager. But no one yet has taken Bongo up on his offer.
Assadi smiled. "Through the books, we are actually visiting the whole of Gabon," he said.