Activists free 34 asylum-seekers from Woomera after tearing down fence

Thirty-four people escaped from Australia's most notorious detention centre after activists tore down a razor-wire fence with a car, Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, said yesterday.

Fifteen asylum-seekers were involved in a carefully planned breakout just before midnight on Thursday from Woomera detention centre, the former missile-testing base in central Australia. The other 19 fled into the desert. Five have been recaptured and 10 more arrests are expected soon.

Mr Ruddock said members of an asylum-seeker support group drove a car to a camp fence, pulled it down and took away the asylum-seekers.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio said an e-mail from a group calling itself Our Sacred Country claimed responsibility. Hundreds of boat people are held in Woomera and four other camps while authorities consider their requests for asylum.

The policy has been criticised by human rights activists but is popular with most Australians. Woomera has been plagued by riots, hunger strikes, arson and self- mutilation. About 160 of the 200 detainees had been on a four-day hunger strike. The reason was not clear, although some have been held for three years mainly because their own country refuses repatriation.

Months ago, 47 inmates fled when hundreds of people protesting at the immigration policy tore down part of the fence. Most were recaptured.

Mr Ruddock said only seven people at Woomera were awaiting a decision. Most are from Iraq, Iran and Afghan-istan. The Australian government has made a deal with the new Afghan administration to allow refugees to return.