Runaways still free as protests go on

01.Apr.02,  first published by read the original article here.

Fourteen of the 50 asylum seekers who escaped from the Woomera Detention Centre during a protest outside the compound remain free, with supporters suggesting some may already be interstate.

"These people have got themselves from the other side of the planet to Australia. They don't think getting to Sydney or Melbourne or a less obvious place such as Darwin is as much of a challenge as some people think," one supporter said.

However, police said some of the Good Friday escapees, given shelter at a tent city accommodating up to 1000 protesters outside the detention compound, might be still hiding there.

"Our intelligence would indicate that's a possibility," said South Australian Superintendent Wayne Bristow.

One group of detainees apparently called for a taxi from Port Augusta, 180 kilometres away, in a failed bid for freedom.

Police feared escapees were being smuggled out of Woomera via off-road routes. Superintendent Bristow said they faced "quite considerable risk" without sufficient food and water.

The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said those convicted of escaping faced up to five years in jail and would serve their terms in Australian prisons before being deported.

Among 36 escapees already found are a woman and five children, who have been returned to the centre.

Protests continued yesterday, with activists again marching on the perimeter fences.

Unlike on Friday, protesters were matched by a strong security presence, including riot and mounted police. Seven were arrested, bringing to 28 the number arrested over the weekend, including 15 charged with harbouring escapees. Most have been bailed on the condition they do not return to the tent city.

Detainees in the compound shouted slogans and threw flowers to those outside.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said the demonstrations were counter-productive and would win the Federal Government more support for its mandatory detention policy.

He said he would not be "intimidated".

"I want to make it very plain that no amount of demonstration, no series of breaches of the law is going to in any way alter the Government's policy in relation to illegal immigration.

"I think it is unlawful, it is counter-productive. If anything it will strengthen the resolve of the Australian people to support even more the Government's policy."

Mr Ruddock criticised South Australian police for not intervening earlier to prevent the escapes.

"An earlier intervention may have avoided the fracas on the detention centre perimeter, which led to these escapes."

But the South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, said Mr Ruddock should apologise to police. One police officer suffered a broken foot yesterday and a number received minor cuts and bruising on Friday.

The Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, said protesters' "illegal actions" did not help asylum seekers.

He repeated his calls for Woomera to be mothballed and for asylum seekers to be held in purpose-built detention centres.

"I don't know anyone who seriously argues in the Labor Party that there should be no form of mandatory detention," he said.