SYDNEY (AFP) - Buildings were torched as hundreds of asylum seekers escaped detention during riots at an Australian refugee facility on Nauru, witnesses said on Saturday, following the unveiling of a hardline immigration policy.
Australia announced on Friday that boat people will no longer be resettled in the country and any unauthorised arrivals will be sent to poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea.
The riots on Friday night saw detainees take control of the immigration processing centre on the remote Pacific island of Nauru and arm themselves with knives and steel bars. Nearly half of the centre's 500 asylum seekers escaped, and a number of buildings were set alight, according to local photographer Clint Deidenang.
They abandoned a four-hour protest after a huge group of locals descended on the centre armed with pipes and machetes to help the authorities contain the violence, he added. All escapees have now been accounted for, Australia's immigration department said.
"Plastic water tanks near burned out buildings melted like butter. I can see one building with its entire roof caved in," said Mr Deidenang, estimating that 95 per cent of the centre's buildings had been razed.
"I can see workers in orange shirt going through the war zone-like wreckage of burned and twisted tin houses. Destructive site," he wrote on Twitter.
A spokesman for Australia's immigration department confirmed there had been "non-compliant behaviour" at the Nauru facility overnight involving about 150 detainees.
"(Private contractor) Wilson Security and the Nauruan police were engaged and they assisted with a response to the incident," she told AFP. "The centre is actually now calm. We are still assessing the extent of the damage. All we know is that there is damage to property."
She could not confirm exactly how many detainees had escaped from the facility but said, as of midnight on Friday, "all staff and transferees have now been accounted for".
According to Australian media reports, which could not be confirmed by immigration, 15 guards were injured and about 60 detainees were arrested.
Mr Deidenang said there were multiple explosions at the site overnight from vehicles which had caught alight, and women and children were told to bunker down in their homes with doors locked.
"Today was history. The biggest riot ever to be staged on Nauru soil. The most violence I've seen. Amazing support from local(s) to the police."
The Nauru centre is part of Canberra's punitive Pacific detention policy for asylum seekers who pay people-smugglers for passage to Australia, with a second such facility on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
The programme was ramped up on Friday with an announcement that Australia was effectively closed to asylum seekers arriving by boat in a bid to deter arrivals, which have exceeded 13,000 this year.
All future smuggled boat passengers will be banished permanently to PNG, regardless of whether they are ultimately found to deserve a visa, under a hardline plan Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hopes will boost his fortunes in an election year.
Mr Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said detainees had been planning to break out for weeks in a bid to march to Nauru's airport in protest at the length of time they had been waiting for processing on the island.
"I really do hope that (PNG) Prime Minister (Peter) O'Neill is looking what's happening on Nauru," Mr Rintoul said.