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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 06:51 GMT 07:51 UK
Search continues for Australian refugees
Police on horseback clash with protesters
Hundreds of protesters invaded the camp
Police in South Australia say they are still searching for 14 asylum seekers who escaped from Woomera detention centre during a mass protest against the government's immigration policy over the weekend.

Police detain one of the protesters
Thirty protesters have been arrested
As hundreds of protesters drifted home, police set up roadblocks to ensure they did not smuggle away the escapee refugees.

Police have warned that the asylum seekers could die of dehydration if they flee into the surrounding desert.

They were among 50 detainees who staged a mass break-out on Friday and the federal government is now investigating how such an embarrassing breach of security occurred.


About 800 demonstrators marched on Woomera, 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Adelaide, over the Easter weekend and clashed with riot police on horseback.

Thirty people have been arrested. All have received bail, including the condition that they leave Woomera and will appear in court on 27 May.

Of the escaped refugees, protesters say some of the fugitives have already reached major cities, where they are being harboured by sympathisers.

But there remain concerns for their safety.

Superintendent Wayne Bristow said it was "a tragedy waiting to happen".

"This is a desert area, these people had no knowledge of it," he said.

Temperatures at this time of year can rise to 30C, falling to below 10C at night.

Some of the protesters plan a further demonstration later on Monday at the site of another detention centre under construction on the outskirts of Port Augusta, about 200 km south of Woomera.

Police under fire

Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock has criticised the police for failing to prevent the break-out on Friday.

He said those who had escaped would be dealt with by the courts and could face five years in prison, and warned that people harbouring them could face a similar punishment.

The break-out happened after about 1,000 activists crossed a restricted area, ripped down perimeter fences and advanced into the detention centre.

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

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, said the demonstrations would not change the government's policy on immigration.

"If anything it will strengthen the resolve of the Australian people to support even more the government's policy," he said.

And Philip Ruddock said the government's tough policy to deter asylum seekers from arriving by boat was succeeding.

He said there had been no new arrivals for five months - the longest such period in four years.

Hundreds held

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.

Some critics have described Woomera as "a concentration camp".

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 government says its policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is necessary for security and health reasons.

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"The escapees have been on the run for almost three days"
See also:

31 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Activists outwit Australia's asylum policy
30 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian police hunt camp escapees
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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