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This article was published 25/8/2010 (2469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
PARIS - France will continue to dismantle illegal Gypsy encampments and send their inhabitants back to Eastern Europe despite widespread international criticism over the crackdown, the country's interior minister said Wednesday.
Brice Hortefeux said France was applying its laws when it expelled planeloads of Gypsies, or Roma, in recent weeks and evacuated more than 100 of their illegal camps.
The operation has sparked criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum and even from Europe's top human rights watchdog, which has accused France of stigmatizing Roma.
Hortefeux told the RTL radio the criticism was "political blather" and insisted racial prejudice was not behind the decision to expel the Gypsies. He said 117 camps have been dismantled and 630 people sent home, with some 300 more expulsions expected by the end of the month.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, presiding over his first Cabinet meeting since returning from summer vacation, urged his team "not to get sidetracked by useless controversies," Immigration Minister Eric Besson said, reporting the French leader's comments.
Conservative Sarkozy has argued that Gypsy camps are sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution, and the crackdown is part of his wider fight against crime.
Hortefeux's comments Wednesday came ahead of his meeting with two top Romanian officials in charge of security and Gypsy issues. Many of the Roma in France are from Romania — a member of the 27-member European Union — and officials there have questioned French tactics on the expulsions.
An Interior Ministry statement said the legality of the expulsions was discussed at Wednesday's meeting.
"It was underscored that one of the principles of free movement — one of the fundamental liberties of the European Union — mustn't be turned into an excuse for human trafficking, prostitution, and begging," the statement said. "France's policy of sending (people) back is in accordance with European Union laws."
The officials pledged to work more closely together, adding that the few Romanian police officers deployed in France would be increased from 4 to 14, the statement said.
Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.