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Saturday, 30 March, 2002, 08:06 GMT
Australian police hunt camp escapees
Escapees scaling the perimeter fence
About 50 detainees escaped during the protest
Up to 10 asylum seekers remain at large after breaking out of the Woomera detention centre in the Australian outback.

The mass escape followed a demonstration by about 1,000 activists who stormed the remote desert compound after tearing down perimeter fencing on Friday.

After two years I'm free!

Escaped detainee

Immigration officials believe about 50 detainees joined the breakout, but the majority have since been recaptured.

Among the detainees to be rounded up were a mother and her three children, who were caught near an isolated farmhouse.

The assault on the camp was organised by a coalition of campaign groups who have converged on the facility for a four-day demonstration against Australia's strict policy on refugees.

Some of the activists are reported to have provided the escaping asylum seekers with disguises to help them flee the centre.

A total of 16 protesters have been charged with harbouring detainees and will be appearing in court next week.

Boy from Woomera detention facility
Demonstrators whisked the escapees away
The BBC's Phil Mercer at Woomera said the activists had crossed a restricted area singing and chanting, before ripping down perimeter fences and moving inside.

Some asylum seekers scaled fences topped with razor wire, while others broke through holes in the perimeter fences.

Officials said guards had been forced to use teargas to break up one group of detainees who attacked them with bed posts and slingshots.

Seventeen officers were hurt, along with more than a dozen detainees. A number of protesters were arrested during the incident and some are expected to be charged.

Superintendant Wayne Bristow, from South Australian Police, described the activists as "irresponsible".

"The actions of the protestors only result in causing harm and damage and injury to those involved - injury to the asylum seekers they purport to help," he said.


Some escapees are now believed to be hiding in the demonstrators' camp about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the detention centre.

A 20-year-old Afghan detainee, who took part in the mass breakout, told our correspondent: "I cannot go back in the camp. If officers kill me, police kill me, good - but don't send me into the camp."

Police have set up roadblocks to try and prevent the escapees being taken away from the area.

"Police are trying to negotiate with us, but I think they are just biding their time until reinforcements arrive and then they'll do a clean sweep of the camp," said Andrea Maksimovic, one of the protesters.

Inside the detention facility other asylum seekers waved shirts and chanted: "Visa, visa, visa!"

Prison conditions

Over the past two years, detainees at Woomera have staged a series of sometimes violent demonstrations, including a hunger strike earlier this year when many of those involved sewed their lips together.

A demonstrator arrives at Woomera
Bus loads of demonstrators are continuing to arrive
Some critics have described Woomera as "a concentration camp".

But the Australian Government insists it is a humane environment, and has defended the mandatory detention of asylum seekers on security and health grounds.

Up to 800 detainees can be held within its razor wire fences while their applications for refugee status are considered.

The process takes a few months on average, but can last up to five years.

More than 300 detainees are currently believed to be in the centre, most of them from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"Two of the asylum seekers were recaptured 200km away"
See also:

29 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Woomera riot
24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands by asylum policy
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