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NEW YORK, July 10: Another 120 or more Pakistanis arrested by the US Immigration authorities in latest sweeps against illegal immigrants could be deported back to the country within few weeks, a Pakistan Embassy official said on Wednesday.

Pakistan Embassy’s consular officer, Imran Ali, who co-ordinated with earlier unprecedented deportation of 131 Pakistanis told Dawn that “these people have stark choices. Either they stay in jail for years or go back to freedom in Pakistan.”

Mr Ali disclosed that in the airlift of 131 Pakistanis two weeks ago the US immigration authorities were unable to bring along pouches of personal belongings of some 40 deportees and said “Now we are in process of obtaining those pouches and returning them to their families in the US or in Pakistan.”

Mr Ali said that Pakistan’s Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi who has a high profile in US has “used all her clout to get the incarcerated Pakistanis back to Pakistan.”

“We are still working with the US authorities to get these people out of US prisons and back in Pakistan.”

The US Justice Department in coordination with the Pakistan Embassy secretly chartered a Portuguese jet to deport 131 Pakistani detainees.

A report in the Washington Post on Wednesday said US and Pakistani officials arranged the airlift as a way to resolve contentious diplomatic issues that have arisen between the two countries since the Justice Department began detaining immigrants in the United States. The US authorities have arrested about 1,200 people, most of Arab and South Asian descent, on immigration violations and in connection with the terrorism investigation. According to the latest government figures, 74 foreign nationals are still being held on immigration charges related to the probe.

None of the detainees taken into custody after Sept 11 has been charged with a terrorism-related crime. The detentions and subsequent deportations have been conducted in secret, drawing criticism from civil liberties advocates. Those critics say the government has illegally targeted Muslims and disrupted the lives of hundreds of people who have nothing to do with terrorism and who have built lives in the United States the paper said.

Mr Ali told Dawn that the Pakistan Embassy had arranged halal food for the deportees and they were given freedom to move around in the plane to visit toilets.

He applauded the Pakistani immigration and FIA authorities for being extraordinarily good and courteous to the deportees, once they arrived in Islamabad. They “processed them quickly and then were ordered to give deportees money to reach their destinations in Pakistan.”

However, Mr Ali lamented that many deportees had families in the US and no relatives in Pakistan “their predicament was particularly bad. They cannot go back and their families cannot come to live in Pakistan.”

Mr Ali said that most of the detainees, who were airlifted out of Louisiana on June 26, boarded the plane quietly and willingly, but about 40 of them were “extremely unhappy” about being deported. “One briefly resisted by lying down on the tarmac, and another had to be carried onto the plane, he said. Seconds before the plane was about to taxi, a man whose wife had obtained a court order preventing his deportation was removed from the plane,” Mr Ali said.

US officials, told WP that the previous airlift which involved the coordination of INS offices throughout the country, was kept quiet for security reasons.

They said the government chose to use a charter flight because of concerns that a US government jet would be a potential target.

After accepting bids, the government chose to use a Lockheed L-1011 jet offered by a Portuguese company, Air Luxor, for $342,000. Officials involved in the planning estimated that the cost of the entire operation surpassed $500,000. The detainees were escorted to an airport in Louisiana by INS agents from 22 cities across the United States, including Baltimore.