SYDNEY — Australian police reinforcements poured into remote Christmas Island today to help quell unrest at a migrant detention centre, amid reports inmates had armed themselves with machetes and petrol bombs.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said police had already retaken some compounds at the facility and so far encountered little resistance.
"There's an operation underway.
The government's not going to cower in the face of some of these criminals," Dutton told reporters in Canberra.
The disturbance at the Indian Ocean island centre began late Sunday after the unexplained death of an escaped asylum-seeker, named in Australian media as Iranian-Kurdish Fazel Chegeni, with detainees starting fires after guards fled.
Detainees have complained about their treatment at the facility on the Australian territory northwest of the mainland, which currently houses 203 men, among them asylum-seekers awaiting processing and foreign citizens being deported because they have criminal convictions.
One inmate, New Zealander Tuk Whakatutu, said the detainees had fallen back into one of the detention centre's compounds, which had been surrounded by police in riot gear.
Whakatutu said most inmates were hoping for a peaceful resolution but a hard-core group of 20-30 young men, mainly New Zealanders and Pacific islanders, were "tooled up" and determined to fight.
"I want nothing to do with it but all the young fellas are gee-d up and all they want to do is go to war with them," he told Radio New Zealand via telephone, with sirens blaring in the background.
"They've got petrol bombs, they've got machetes, they've got chainsaws, iron bars, they've got all sorts."
Whakatutu said police, whose numbers were bolstered by two plane loads of reinforcements from the mainland, had warned detainees they would be shot if officers encountered armed resistance.
"I don't want to get shot for something I'm not involved in," he said.
Whakatutu's comments could not be independently verified but the Australian Federal Police confirmed the immigration department had requested their help and specialist personnel had been deployed to the island.
Detainees 'putting themselves' at risk
The immigration department said in a statement that an operation was underway to restore order at the facility, noting that some detainees were "continuing to engage in non-compliant behaviour putting themselves and others at risk".
"Service provider staff are continuing to negotiate with detainees engaged in protest activity and are methodically re-entering and securing control of compounds within the centre," it said.
It said that additional damage had been caused to facilities overnight, including attempts to light fires but that these had not taken hold.
New Zealand opposition lawmaker Kelvin Davis, who last month visited the centre, claimed police appeared determined to re-take the facility using force and he feared for the lives of detainees.
"To be honest, I don't know if some of them are still going to be alive in a couple of hours," he said.
"The Australians aren't interested in negotiating a peaceful resolution...they've gone to the expense of flying over reinforcements who've got to earn their money.
"So they'll go in swinging their batons."
The unrest at Christmas Island came as the United Nations' top human rights body took Australia to task over hardline policies on asylum-seekers, whom it has pushed back by the boatload and incarcerated in offshore camps. — AFP