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Australia Says Hunger Strike Over

January 30, 2002

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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ A hunger strike at an illegal immigrant detention center in the Australian Outback where asylum seekers had sewn their lips together ended Wednesday after negotiations with government officials, the immigration minister said.

Further details were not immediately available but the announcement by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock signaled the end of a two-week crisis at the Woomera detention center, where more than 250 illegal immigrants had refused food to protest conditions at the camp and the length of time their asylum applications take to be processed.

``The hunger strike at Woomera has been abandoned,″ Ruddock told reporters.

One of the hunger strikers, Hassan Varasi, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the strike was over.

``From right now, we are breaking our hunger strike,″ he said.

A team of government negotiators who returned to the detention center Wednesday said they were confident of brokering a deal to end the hunger strike. On Tuesday, the government team recommended closing the Woomera internment camp.

The Immigration Detention Advisory Group said it had made progress in discussions last week and late Tuesday with representatives of the protesters at the Woomera camp, and expected to reach a compromise with the group.

``There’s an excellent rapport we’ve developed with the detainees’ representatives, and I think because of that we’re looking for some truly productive discussions tomorrow,″ the team’s leader, Ray Funnell, said late Tuesday.

``Our mission is to help resolve this terrible crisis and to avert tragedy and I think we’re well on the way to doing that,″ he added. He did not say when he expected to reach a deal with the refugees.

About 246 asylum seekers were on hunger strike at Woomera, a former missile testing base on a hot, dusty plain about 1,120 miles west of Sydney. Nine protesters still had their lips sewn together early Wednesday. Last week, dozens had sewn their mouths shut.

Another nine refugees, all aged 18, had said they would harm themselves at 5 p.m. Wednesday if they were not moved out of Woomera. It was not immediately clear if they also had called off their planned action.

On Monday night, about 36 detainees asked to have stitches in their mouths removed in a gesture to negotiators.

``Woomera is an extremely harsh environment in which to detain anybody,″ said Paris Aristotle, a member of the government’s advisory group.

On Tuesday, Ruddock responded to the recommendation that the center be closed by promising to scale down the camp as other holding facilities were built. Closing Woomera might be possible in the future, he added.

However, he said it was not appropriate to make such a decision under duress.

About 3,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and southern Asia, are being detained in five camps across Australia.

About 20 detainees at other detention centers across Australia have joined the hunger strike in a show of solidarity.

Prime Minister John Howard had refused to back down, despite the issue threatening to overshadow his weeklong visit to the United States, which started Tuesday. He is scheduled to address the World Economic Forum and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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