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Lawyers for Afghan interpreters launch UK legal bid seeking same treatment as Iraqis

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    A banner is held outside the Foreign Office in London, Friday, May 3, 2013. Campaigners and two former British soldiers gathered to deliver a box with over 70,000 signatures calling on the UK government to grant Afghan interpreters asylum. A wreath was laid in memory of the 26 Afghan interpreters who have already been killed while serving with British forces. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (The Associated Press)

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    Interpreter "Mohammad" has the British Foreign Office reflected in his glasses as he campaigns outside the Foreign Office in London, Friday, May 3, 2013. Campaigners and two former British soldiers gathered to deliver a box with over 70,000 signatures calling on the UK government to grant Afghan interpreters asylum, a wreath was laid in memory of the 26 Afghan interpreters who have already been killed while serving with British forces. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (The Associated Press)

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    Former British soldiers Patrick Hennessey, left, and Jake Wood, right, and Interpreter "Mohammad", centre, hold a wreath outside the Foreign Office in London, Friday, May 3, 2013. Campaigners and two former British soldiers gathered to deliver a box with over 70,000 signatures calling on the UK government to grant Afghan interpreters asylum, a wreath was laid in memory of the 26 Afghan interpreters who have already been killed while serving with British forces. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (The Associated Press)

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    A campaigner holds a wreath and a banner outside the Foreign Office in London, Friday, May 3, 2013. Campaigners and two former British soldiers gathered to deliver a box with over 70,000 signatures calling on the UK government to grant Afghan interpreters asylum, a wreath was laid in memory of the 26 Afghan interpreters who have already been killed while serving with British forces. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (The Associated Press)

Three Afghan interpreters who worked with British troops launched a legal bid on Friday challenging the U.K. government's decision not to give them the same assistance awarded to Iraqi interpreters, which their lawyers said is dangerous and discriminatory.

The move comes after British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week said the hundreds of Afghans who have worked with British forces should — if possible — stay in their country to help rebuild.

Law firm Leigh Day said interpreters and their families face the threat of retaliation from the Taliban and the British government has a duty to ensure the interpreters are not left exposed to dangers. The firm said it had filed formal proceedings at Britain's High Court on behalf of the three Afghans to seek a judicial review.

Iraqis interpreters who qualified were eligible for a one-time package of financial aid or exceptional indefinite leave to enter the U.K., outside normal immigration rules.

"The failure by the U.K. government to extend to the Afghan interpreters the resettlement package offered to Iraqi interpreters is unlawful and discriminatory," Rosa Curling from Leigh Day said in a statement.

The British government confirmed the legal proceedings but said it would be inappropriate to comment further on the case.

"We are committed to making the appropriate provision to support our locally employed staff as we draw down and eventually end our combat mission, and we are currently looking very carefully at how we do this," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

The firm did not provide the full names of the interpreters represented, citing security reasons.

But Leigh Day said the father of one of the men has received phone threats calling him an "infidel's spy" and saying "we have found your place" and "very soon you will see your punishment."

The legal challenge came as activists delivered a petition signed by 78,000 people to Britain's foreign office urging the government to immediately grant asylum to the estimated 500 interpreters employed by Britain's Ministry of Defense.

"Risks to their lives are growing daily as the U.K. starts to withdraw; we cannot abandon them and we must act now. Their fate is in your hands," the petition states.

The British prime minister has said the issue is being discussed by his National Security Council and that Britain should make sure those under direct threat can apply to come to live in the U.K.

"We should not turn our backs," Cameron said. "But I do think that....we should do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and to contribute to it."

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Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd