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Fires Strike Australia's Newest Immigration Detention Center - 2002-12-29

A series of fires has swept through parts of Australia's newest immigration detention center at Port Augusta. The authorities say 11 people have been hospitalized, and several buildings have been badly damaged. Investigators think the fires were started deliberately.

The largest fire started early Sunday at the Baxter detention center in South Australia.

Firefighters said bedding, furniture and shower curtains were deliberately set alight. Parts of several accommodation units have been destroyed and around a dozen detainees have been hospitalized after breathing in smoke. Officials say a number of security staff also were injured.

South Australian State Premier Mike Rann calls for tough action against those behind the fire.

"If they were deliberately lit, and that those responsible are found guilty, they must be dealt with severely," he said. "And, if that means deportation, so be it."

Fires also were set Saturday. The Australian Federal Police are investigating, and are questioning a number of detainees.

The fire early Sunday did an estimated one million dollars worth of damage. Emergency crews worked almost two hours to control the blaze.

A spokeswoman for the South Australian Democrats says the federal government should take some of the blame for the fire. She calls it an act of desperation by people with no other way of expressing their feelings.

Many of the asylum seekers held at Baxter had been detained for two or three years in other remote camps. Many have had their applications for refugee status rejected, and are awaiting the outcome of their appeals.

The center houses 215 people, most from the Middle East and South Asia.

The Baxter facility was built to allow the government to close a camp in Western Australia, and reduce the number of asylum seekers at the Woomera camp in the South Australian desert.

Australia automatically detains any asylum seekers who enter the country without proper documentation. Human rights groups and the United Nations criticize the policy as inhumane, but the government defends it on health and security grounds.