PARIS -- France expelled to the west African state of Gabon Tuesday 17 opponents of the Iranian regime in what dissidents said was part of a deal with Iran for helping in the release of two French hostages kidnapped in Lebanon.
The Interior Ministry said 14 Iranians and three Turks, arrested Monday in a roundup of members of the Mojahedin Khalq -- an Iranian opposition group -- were expelled Tuesday to the former French colony in west Africa.
It said eight other Iranians and another Turk were placed under house arrest. They were expected to be deported as soon as a country could be found to accept them.
The expulsions apparently were part of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with Iran in hopes the Moslem fundamentalist regime in Tehran will put pressure on pro-Iranian kidnappers in Lebanon to free French hostages.
In London, demonstrators picketed the French Embassy to protest the crackdown. One member of the Muslim Iranian Student Society said the protest will continue until those arrested are released and those expelled are returned to France 'and treated as political refugees from Iran.'
In Paris, about 30 relatives of those expelled conducted a sit-in protest at President Francois Mitterrand's Elysee Palace. The sit-in lasted an hour and broke up with no arrests.
A Mojahedin spokesman said Gabon and Iran have good relations and it could not be ruled out that those expelled to the west African nation would be sent back to Tehran, where they would face execution because all have been convicted in absentia to death.
The Mojahedin, which has asked Mitterrand to intervene to stop further expulsions, is the largest Iranian group opposed to the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Its military wing, the National Liberation Army of Iran, has claimed a series of military successes inside Iran.
Mojahedin leader Massoud Rajavi, expelled from France to Iraq in June 1986, protested the action in a message to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. He said those arrested were legal residents of France with political refugee status.
The commission later sent a request to the Foreign Ministry seeking information about the expulsions. The ministry said it would reply through appropriate channels.
'I am astonished to see these victims of the violations of human rights become victims of secret deals,' Rajavi said, adding that France was 'trampling on the right to asylum.'
The Interior Ministry said 'several dozen' Iranians were arrested in the Paris area Monday. It said those arrested were 'responsible for militant actions that seriously disturb the public order.
'The expulsion measures reached against these citizens were executed without delay, for urgent reasons of national security,' the ministry said in a statement.
Rajavi said Monday in a telegram to Mitterrand the arrests were 'the result of an ignoble deal with the biggest terrorist dictatorship in the contemporary world.' Four French human rights organizations also protested the arrests.
The development was the latest in a series of moves by the government apparently designed to satisfy Iranian demands for a normalization of ties between the two countries.
The process was prompted by the release Nov. 27 of two French hostages in Beirut. At the time Chirac thanked Iran for its role in their liberation.
Two days later, France freed Wahid Gordji, an Iranian official who had refused to leave the Iranian Embassy in Paris to answer questions about a series of terrorist bombings in the French capital. He was exchanged for a French diplomat confined to the French Embassy in Tehran.
The government is also expected soon to finish paying back some of the $1 billion owed to Tehran from a loan to France made by the shah of Iran in 1974.
Both countries reported their relations, severed since July 17, had entered a new and improved phase but Chirac warned ties could not be completely restored 'until the last hostage' in Lebanon was freed.
France is seeking freedom for three more French hostages believed held in Lebanon. A fourth, Michel Seurat, was reported 'executed' by the Islamic Jihad in March 1986 but his body has never been found.