SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian authorities have regained control of a controversial immigration detention center, officials said on Tuesday, after the death of an asylum seeker sparked rioting that led to at least five injuries and widespread damage.
Reinforcements were rushed in after fences at the center on the remote Australian outpost of Christmas Island were torn down and fires were lit, forcing guards to abandon the facility and allowing access to vulnerable inmates by other detainees.
Asylum seekers are a hot political issue in Australia where successive governments have vowed to stop them reaching the mainland, sending those intercepted on unsafe boats to camps on Christmas Island, and more recently Manus island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific.
Christmas Island segregates detainees seeking political asylum, many of whom have fled from war-torn regions in the Middle East and Asia, from foreigners facing deportation for a variety of crimes.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told reporters that the operation to regain control of the center had faced some resistance, but focused blame primarily on violent criminal detainees rather than asylum seekers.
Five detainees received injuries including minor lacerations during a “melee” after police moved against those detainees, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs who had refused the opportunity to surrender, he said.
“It is a hardened criminal population that occupies the immigration detention center on Christmas Island,” he said.
“Obviously the priority for today has been to restore calm to the center. That has taken place.”
One detainee required evacuation from the island for medical treatment, he said. No officers were injured.
The extent of damage to the center had not been assessed, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in a statement, but some common areas appeared to have been “severely damaged”.
Dutton said earlier that the unrest began late Sunday night following the death of an asylum seeker, whose body was discovered by search and rescue teams at the bottom of cliffs away from the center.
Refugee advocates identified the man as an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker.
Unrest at those facilities, which as recently as Monday drew criticism from the United Nations over alleged human rights violations, is not uncommon.
One asylum seeker, Iranian citizen Reza Barati, was killed and more than 70 injured during riots in 2014 on Manus Island for which a senate inquiry blamed the Australian government.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Macfie