Detention centre escapees face death in the desert, police warn

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The Independent Online

Riot police on horseback clashed with protesters yesterday as demonstrations continued outside a remote Australian detention centre for refugees.

Riot police on horseback clashed with protesters yesterday as demonstrations continued outside a remote Australian detention centre for refugees.

At least three protesters were knocked to the ground by horses and three more were taken into custody as police barred their approach to the Woomera detention centre, a former missile-testing base where 300 mostly Afghan and Iraqi refugees are being held.

Police hunting for 11 or 12 refugees who fled the centre in a mass breakout on Friday warned that escapees could die if they hide in the desert around Woomera, 1,800km (1,100 miles) west of Sydney.

"This is a desert area. These people had no knowledge of it," said Superintendent Wayne Bristow. "Let's forget about the semantics of the rights and wrongs of this. The bottom line is we are talking about people's safety and welfare."

Philip Ruddock, the Immigration minister, said 11 of the 50 refugees who escaped on Friday were still on the run. An immigration official said 12 were still free.

Friday's breakout happened as police clashed with hundreds of protesters demonstrating against Australia's policy of detaining illegal immigrants in remote camps while their applications for asylum are processed – a process that can take up to three years.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said the protests would not sway his government. "Our policy will not be intimidated into change by this kind of behaviour," he said.

The escapees, including three children, scaled fences topped with razor-wire and cut through them with bolt-cutters provided by some of the demonstrators. Sixteen protesters were arrested on Friday on charges of harbouring the escapees. Police arrested another four late on Saturday afternoon when they broke through a fence to reach an outer wall of the centre.

In their demonstration yesterday, protesters took crates of toys close to the detention centre's fence. They were picked up and taken inside by security staff. Later the protesters walked around the fence throwing flowers to refugees. A woman refugee in the centre shouted: "We are not animals, free us!"

Seventeen security guards and 14 asylum-seekers suffered minor injuries in clashes inside the centre on Friday, when guards fired tear gas at detainees, who flung chairs, rocks, bedposts and rubbish bins.

Mr Ruddock said on Saturday that those who escaped had ruined their chances of being granted asylum. "Australia is under no obligation to give protection to people who commit serious criminal offences," he said.

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