Breakout Attempt at Sydney Asylum Center

01.Jan.03,  first published by Reuters: read the original article here.

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's asylum seeker detention centers were in turmoil Tuesday, with an attempted mass breakout and riot in a Sydney center, an armed standoff at another and fires burning in both.

Police said inmates started fires and attacked guards with iron bars in a breakout attempt by 20 to 30 people at the Villawood detention center in western Sydney. No injuries were reported.

Nearby residents said smoke was pouring from the center from what fire brigade officials said were six fires. A center official told local media that between 60 and 80 detainees rioted in another section of Villawood.

Police later told Reuters the detainees had stopped rioting early Wednesday and that fire brigades were still trying to control fires in the center.

"The riot has calmed down but the people are still outside their dormitories," a police spokeswoman said.

A Villawood spokesman said 20 detainees had tried to break out by commandeering a car and trying to ram the perimeter gates. A police vehicle blocking the gates stopped the escape attempt. Police said 30 detainees were involved in the attempt.

On Australia's remote Christmas Island, 2,400 km (1,450 miles) west of Darwin, boatpeople occupied a detention center compound, setting fire to a dining hall and challenging guards in an armed stand-off, officials said.

"Detainees armed with pipes and other weapons have occupied one of the compounds on Christmas Island and set the dining hall on fire," immigration department spokeswoman Jenny Hoskin said, adding that she was not aware of any injuries.

Spotlight on policy

The latest violence, which has swept through most of Australia's seven detention centers in recent days, has again shone a spotlight on Australia's hard-line stance of detaining all illegal arrivals in guarded camps.

Asylum cases can take years to process. The long delays have triggered a series of protests and escapes, but Prime Minister John Howard has said his government will not be deterred from detaining illegal immigrants or from diverting boats carrying mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern asylum seekers to Pacific islands.

Both policies have been sharply criticized by international human rights groups and the United Nations.

"If anybody thinks they can alter our policy by setting fire to detention centers then they are wrong. That won't alter our policy one iota," Howard told a Sydney radio station.

The protest on the Indian Ocean island came less than 24 hours after detainees staged similar action at an outback detention center, where staff fled attacks by asylum seekers armed with metal bars and stones.

"Officers were pelted with stones and threatened with metal bars as they tried to extinguish the fires which were driven by strong winds, spread rapidly and eventually destroyed two compounds," the immigration department said in a statement.

Blazes at the desert Woomera camp in South Australia destroyed or damaged 43 buildings before they were brought under control. No one was seriously injured in the disturbance, but some staff and detainees were treated for smoke inhalation.

It was the latest in a string of uprisings at Woomera. Earlier this year, detainees staged a mass hunger strike, sewed their lips up and threatened suicide.

Refugee advocacy groups acknowledged the latest violence did nothing to enhance the asylum seekers' cause but stressed that the long period people spent in detention was unacceptable.

"People at Woomera...are getting very angry and frustrated and, while that does not excuse this behavior, it explains it," said Marion Le from the Independent Council for Refugee Advocacy.

Howard's tough stand against illegal immigration has broad public support in this island continent of 20 million people.

The government insists it works. No boatpeople have reached Australian shores in a year and the number held in detention centers has fallen to 1,200 from 2,300 a year ago.