DUBLIN, Ireland – Police surrounded a Dublin cathedral Friday where Afghan asylum seekers were in the sixth day of a hunger strike, but a protest spokesman warned they would try to commit suicide if police moved in.
Samandar Khan, 19, said about a half-dozen teenagers in the group of 40 protesters had armed themselves with razors and ropes and would try to slit their wrists or hang themselves if police didn't back off.
Police kept their distance as church officials, lawyers and a veteran mediator tried to negotiate a peaceful outcome.
Osman Hotak, another spokesman for the asylum seekers who occupied St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday, earlier vowed that the protest would continue to the death even if police moved them out of the cathedral.
"If somebody wants to move us by force from the house of God where we have chosen to take refuge, then we ask the international community to come and help us," Hotak said. "They can take us anywhere. We will stay on hunger strike."
Friday's deployment by the Garda Siochana, Ireland's national police force, represented the first sign that authorities might use force against the protest. The Afghans say they want Ireland to grant asylum to the hunger strikers, all of whom are males aged 17 to 45, but Irish authorities say most of the protesters haven't properly pursued the required legal channels.
About 50 officers walked into the 13th-century cathedral, which has been closed to worshippers and tourists since Tuesday. But both sides said they did not approach the protesters, who have been sleeping on the cathedral floor and on rows of wooden chairs since Sunday. More officers closed streets and formed a security perimeter outside. About 15 police vans were parked in side streets.
Two ambulances arrived outside the cathedral and one protester could be seen being escorted by paramedics. About 10 protesters have been hospitalized this week suffering from dehydration, but all have been released to return to the protest.
Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Justice Minister Michael McDowell have ruled out negotiations and insisted the men must have their cases processed individually through Ireland's refugee-application system, which typically takes two to four years.
Two lawyers representing the protesters, Brian Burns and Paul O'Shea, went into the cathedral. So did Phil Flynn, a well known labor union negotiator, who said he had been asked by the hunger strikers to help them.
"I have been here three times this week already, but it's all changing this morning," said Flynn, who earlier this week brokered an end to a strike by train drivers.
A government official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the police operation, said authorities were particularly concerned that the protest involves about a half-dozen Afghans aged 17. Under Irish law, they are unaccompanied minors whose rights must be protected by the state.
The official said police hoped to end the protest without resort to force, but stressed that particular action might need to be taken to remove the youngest protesters from the cathedral.
Hotak said the youngest protesters had joined voluntarily. He said Ireland's justice system was treating the teenagers as adults.
"This is their own decision. They're not going to leave this church," Hotak said. "What kind of government is this, that they would take a kid of 16 or 17 to court who hasn't committed a crime? They are treated as a kid only because they are on hunger strike."
"We will die to get justice, nothing else," Hotak added.
The protesters refused to drink water from Sunday to Tuesday, but relented after Hotak and other protest leaders met Justice Department officials, who tried to reassure them that their cases would be handled fairly.
On Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Ireland, Manuel Jordao, met the protesters for three hours but failed to persuade them to end their protest. On Thursday, leaders of the Church of Ireland — the Anglican-affiliated denomination that owns St. Patrick's — said they sympathized with the protesters' suffering and determination, but appealed for them to stop their hunger strike and leave the building.