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More Than 3 Dozen Asylum Seekers Escape From Australia Detention Camp - 2002-06-28

More than 30 asylum seekers have escaped in another breakout from Australia's notorious immigration camp at Woomera. The escapees were helped by activists, who tore down a perimeter fence during the nighttime escape. At least five have been recaptured.

Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says the escape was a carefully planned operation carried out by a refugee support group.

It took place in the middle of the night Thursday and came during the largest hunger strike at the camp since January. Just hours earlier four detainees stitched their lips together in protest.

Government officials say 39 detainees escaped. A number were recaptured 300 kilometers north of Woomera in a security sweep involving air searches and roadblocks. One was discovered in the township of Woomera, which lies in the heart of the South Australian desert.

Several refugee activists suspected of organizing the breakout were arrested in the coastal city of Port Augusta. In March, protestors tore down fences and helped 50 detainees flee. A dozen are still on the run.

Immigration Ministry spokeswoman Tanya Cutting said most of those involved in the breakout have had their applications for political asylum turned down. "The group that we're talking about are mostly and overwhelmingly rejected asylum seekers and this is a criminal action that's occurred and there will be some consequences," she said.

Woomera holds about 210 illegal immigrants, who come mostly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. The vast majority have had their claims for asylum in Australia rejected, though about half still have legal appeals pending.

Around 160 detainees are taking part in the latest hunger strike at Australia's most notorious detention camp. The strikes reportedly include children and a pregnant woman, who are refusing all food and water.

It is not clear what the detainees are protesting in the current hunger strike. It may be linked to recent comments by government officials that some detainees could be forcibly deported.

The United Nations has criticized conditions at the remote desert camp, which has been the scene of riots, breakouts and attempted suicides.

The government's hard-line asylum policy, whereby all illegal immigrants are locked away until their applications for refugee status are processed, has broad public support across Australia. The government says the mandatory detention of asylum seekers is necessary on health and security grounds. The country accepts about legal 10,000 asylum seekers a year, after they have been granted refugee status by the United Nations.