March 13, 2011 - AS MANY as 70 asylum seekers were roaming Christmas Island last night after a riot and mass breakout from their overcrowded detention centre.
More than 150 men pushed down a perimeter fence on Friday night at the remote North Point centre and escaped into bushland, emerging yesterday to wander the island. Some swam at beaches, others camped at the airport, temporarily forcing the closure of its only runway.
Most were refusing pleas to return to the centre last night.
Tension has run high for months at the detention centre - built for 600 but now housing more than 2500 asylum seekers. Detainees are protesting against cramped conditions and the long wait for their visa applications to be processed.
As refugee advocates warned that problems at the centre were likely to worsen, another boatload of asylum seekers was found off the West Australian coast near Broome late yesterday.
Police reinforcements were being rushed to the scene yesterday but flights to the island were on hold because of the asylum seekers gathered so close to the tarmac.
Residents said there were groups of men all over the island. Some were being followed by police and immigration centre staff.
''They had backpacks and food,'' one islander said. ''Some of them are being followed by Serco staff and Immigration in buses but some are by themselves.''
The woman said the groups were only men and some looked as if they been injured.
''One had a T-shirt with freedom written across the front. They are not aggressive, they are pretty smiley. One group said they were heading to the beach for a swim.''