Asylum-seekers say officers left them to die in blaze

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The Independent Online

Adam Koui was roused from his sleep by the sound of alarms and screaming as violence erupted around him. The 24-year-old rushed from his room to be confronted by a frightening mêlée in the corridor.

Adam Koui was roused from his sleep by the sound of alarms and screaming as violence erupted around him. The 24-year-old rushed from his room to be confronted by a frightening mêlée in the corridor.

"I asked people what had happened. They were screaming. Someone had started a fire. People were smashing things," he said yesterday.

Nearby Youssouf Sidibe, 29, was struggling through the same panicked mob. "It was awful. We were scared for our lives. The officers' room was empty. There was no one there," he said.

Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, which houses asylum-seekers, is full of tension at the best of times. The discovery on Monday night of a 31-year-old Ukrainian man hanging in his cell proved a catalyst to the worst violence experienced at the centre.

In the first account of what it was like for the 440 men trapped inside the detention centre, Mr Koui and Mr Sidibe - both political activists who fled Guinea after being tortured and beaten in prison - explained how they feared they had been left to die.

The men found themselves locked in the wing with no staff to turn to, unaware that sprinklers had put out the fires in other areas. "The officers ran away. They saved their lives. They didn't save ours. Everybody was panicking," Mr Sidibe said.

Soon the detainees could see they had been surrounded by riot police. Helicopters could be heard circling overhead.

"They were saying a man had died in his room. I said: 'How did he die?' They said he had been taken to the airport and he didn't want to go so they beat him," explained Mr Koui.

It was such unfounded rumours - rife in a place inhabited by people who have fled violent regimes and are terrified of suddenly being sent home - that sparked the riot.

Harmondsworth, near Heathrow airport, west of London, is run by UK Detention Services. It opened in 2001 and is now male only.The first indication many had of trouble was when the normal roll-call at 11.30pm was brought forward to 10pm and repeated three times. The fear it generated helped fuel a series of frightening theories.

"We were told the people started the fire because their mate was dead," said Mr Koui.

An hour later, the violence had spread. Staff retreated as riot police and specially trained teams of prison officers arrived.

By next morning, while 80 detainees had a stand-off with police, most of the inmates were locked back in their rooms where they sat all day before being dispersed to centres across the country. By the time the stand-off ended on Tuesday evening 17 had been arrested and later bailed back into custody. Mr Sidibe and Mr Koui ended up in Lindholme Detention Centre in Yorkshire.

Mr Koui was just five when his father died in a prison cell because of his political beliefs. To his mother's horror, the young man followed his example and ended up in jail himself.

Mr Sidibe underwent electric-shock torture during his detention in Guinea. When his pregnant wife was beaten to death, he fled to Britain. Both have refused to return home. Four in the morning is the worst time for asylum-seekers in detention. It is at this hour that guards turn up and tell them to pack their bags.Emma Ginn, who campaigns for detainees, insists the violence came as no surprise. "It is a life of long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Detainees are usually informed about removal arrangements without delay. They might be at short notice and later in the night because of flight availability. Advance notice in some cases might be inappropriate if the person might be a risk to themselves or other detainees.''

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