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By Sophie Hardach
PARIS (Reuters) - France and Britain deported three Afghan illegal migrants on a first joint flight on Tuesday night as part of an immigration crackdown that has drawn fire from human rights groups and angry politicians.
The secretive operation was part of wider Anglo-French cooperation over immigration, a hot-button issue in relations since thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries use France as a launch pad to cross the channel.
But politicians from President Nicolas Sarkozy's own UMP party and the opposition attacked the plan, pointing to worsening security in Afghanistan and a pledge not to return migrants to unsafe places.
"We've been deceived," UMP parliamentarian Etienne Pinte told Reuters. "The principle of non-return has been flouted."
A plane chartered by Britain left France's Roissy airport at midnight with three Afghan men on board, en route to Kabul, French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said on Europe 1 radio. The three men lived in France.
UMP parliamentarian Francoise Hostalier told media she doubted the Afghans had been properly informed of their rights.
France and Britain, two major contributors of troops in the Afghan war, agreed in July to toughen border controls and jointly deport migrants. France also cleared a tent city near the port of Calais where migrants tried to cross the channel.
"Out of respect for its international and European obligations, France must prevent illegal migration into a neighbouring country," France's foreign ministry said.
It said French embassy staff would look after the three men upon their arrival in Kabul.
A howl of outrage across the political spectrum scuppered previous attempts by France arrange such flights.
"This is a disgrace for France, we cannot treat men and women like this," Socialist leader Martine Aubry said on France 2 television on Wednesday. "I want to point out that they don't come here to bother us but to flee war, misery and poverty."
A spokesman for the Home Office said it was their policy not to confirm or deny such flights until after the plane had landed. France also refused to comment before the flight.
More than 10,000 people including Bertrand Delanoe, the socialist mayor of Paris, have signed a petition by France Terre d'Asile against forced deportations to Afghanistan.
"The security situation in that country has markedly worsened in recent years," the petition reads. "Nothing can ensure people's safety, not even the international coalition in Afghanistan."
France and Britain have the biggest missions in Afghanistan after the United States and along with Germany, with a roughly 8,800-strong British contingent and about 3,000 French troops.
(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Clement Guillou and Laure Bretton; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Reuters