Asylum-seekers stage break-out as inspector issues bleak picture of starvation and abuse

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David Blunkett faced accusations last night that the system for holding asylum-seekers had broken down after 20 refugees escaped from a North Yorkshire detention centre and separate claims emerged that detainees from other centres had been the victims of assault.

Last night, police said they had captured ten of the 20 Iraqis, Kosovans, Macedonians, Ukrainians and Indians who broke out of Lindholme Removal Centre, Doncaster, on Sunday morning. The others remain at large.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the escape was a symbol of asylum "chaos". He said: "Given Lindholme's past experience of attempted break-outs, it is extraordinary such a large number of men were able to escape with such apparent ease. This regrettable episode is symptomatic of an asylum system is in total chaos."

Yesterday, a report into Britain's biggest removal centre, Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, raised concerns about claims that detainees had been assaulted.

The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said the centre was an "essentially unsafe place for detainees and staff."

"It is extremely important such claims should be fully investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted, but we were told police and prosecutors were reluctant to act," she said. "If so, this is unacceptable."

The claims of assault and injury were made by asylum-seekers against private companies whose staff had the job of deporting failed claimants from the United Kingdom.

In a separate report, it was claimed that an inquiry into the Yarl's Wood detention centre fire is investigating allegations that asylum-seekers were abused by wardens.

Prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw is studying claims that asylum-seekers were denied food and subjected to excessive force at the Bedfordshire centre in February last year.

But Group 4, which manages the £100m centre, denied the claims made by BBC Radio Four's Today programme.

Mr Shaw said : "Allegations raised by Today that some asylum-seekers were denied food and experienced excessive force will be investigated as part of the Yarl's Wood inquiry."

"We will be looking at all aspects of the treatment of the detainees in the immediate aftermath of the fire."

Half the Home Office's showpiece detention centre was destroyed by the Valentine's Day blaze in 2002.

The complex, originally designed to house 1,000 people, has only just reopened to 60 single women, with plans to increase numbers to 400 by spring 2005.

Today interviewed Lucky Jacobs, a Nigerian acquitted of involvement in the incident, who told them: "I was starved, I didn't have anything to eat for three days." He claimed up to 15 guards used excessive force separating him and a cellmate.

Dismissing the claims, a spokesman for Group 4, John Bates, said: "Our staff are conscientious, professional and well trained. It is unfair to demonise them in this way. These allegations are nonsense."

He said he understood Mr Jacobs was in the detention centre's segregation unit when the alleged incidents were said to have occurred.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Stephen Shaw, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is currently undertaking an independent investigation into the events at Yarl's Wood.

"The investigation is still ongoing, therefore it would be inappropriate to comment on specific aspects."