By Mark Anderson
LONDON (Reuters) - Around 600 interpreters who serve alongside British soldiers in Afghanistan are to be offered visas to live in the UK, in a softening of the government's previous policy of encouraging them to stay in the country after British troops withdraw.
But limits attached to the offer have drawn fire from human rights activists and even from Prime Minister David Cameron's own party.
The interpreters, who are employed by the Ministry of Defence, will be allowed to choose between a free five-year training program in Afghanistan or the right to live in Britain for five years, with the option to apply for permanent asylum afterwards.
The residence offer, however, only applies to those who have been working for British forces since the start of this year.
"These proposals give them a choice: the opportunity to go on working in Afghanistan, learning new skills and to go on rebuilding their country or to come and make a new start in Britain," said a government statement.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman added: "It's a redundancy package designed for those who will not be able to work as a result of our drawdown."
Cameron has previously said the interpreters should remain in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country after British forces withdraw next year.
His junior Liberal Democrat coalition partners however had long pressed for the interpreters - who say they and their families will be at risk from Taliban reprisals once the British go - to be allowed to claim asylum in the UK.
Britain's 9,000 combat troops in Afghanistan are due to leave the country by the end of 2014, with nearly half of them expected to pull out this year, after more than a decade of conflict that has cost the lives of nearly 450 British troops.
Politicians in Cameron's own party have expressed concern that the deal will only allow Afghan interpreters who have been working since January 1, 2013 to seek asylum in Britain, and will not help those working with British troops before then.
"This is a slightly thoughtless way of limiting numbers," lawmaker David Davis told Reuters.
Three interpreters issued a claim at the High Court in London earlier this month challenging the government's decision not to treat them in the same way as it had done with local staff in Iraq after the 2003 American-led invasion.
Lawyer Rosa Curling, who acted for the three, said she was pleased the "bravery of the Afghan interpreters now seems to have been recognized."
But she told BBC radio: "We are, however, concerned that some interpreters may not qualify if the scheme is only available to those employed between December 2012 and December 2014 and limited to front-line staff only.
"This would completely undermine the purpose of the policy."
Mohammad Rafi, an Afghan interpreter who served alongside British forces from 2006-2011, also criticized the offer.
"It's not the right deal because it doesn't apply to me, my family, or my brother who have served this country, and it doesn't apply to other interpreters who have served this country," he told Reuters.
"Today the government is leaving them (interpreters) behind to be killed by the Taliban."
The campaign director of human rights group Avaaz, which delivered a petition with 82,000 signatories to the Foreign Office that called for Afghan interpreters to be offered asylum, urged that the deal be the same as that offered for interpreters in Iraq.
"Under that deal, staff employed on or after January 2005 were eligible to apply for asylum," said Alex Wilks.
"Avaaz is today urging the British government to extend today's deal to all former Afghan employees facing threats."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)