Runaway SL athletes fear death

2006-03-28 09:23
Sydney - A group of athletes from Sierra Leone who went missing after the Melbourne Commonwealth Games have said they fear genital mutilation and death if they are sent home and are expected to seek asylum.

Fourteen members of the impoverished African nation's team went missing from the athletes village last week along with nine from Cameroon, a Tanzanian boxer and a Bangladeshi runner.

Six of the Sierra Leoneans were granted temporary visas on Tuesday, a day after another six were allowed to stay in Australia pending their applications for refugee status after being picked up by police, immigration officials said.

Two others remain in the country illegally. Of the 14 who left the village, nine were on the track team, two were boxers, two cyclists and one a weightlifter.

Speaking on ABC television late on Monday, members of the first group of three men and three women spoke of their fears of genital mutilation and death if sent home.

"They are chasing us wherever. We are hiding because of the female circumcision. We don't want to get involved in that, so we are just hiding," 19-year-old Marion Banguru said.

Captured and beaten by unknown men

Hassan Fullah, 19, said that he was captured and beaten by unknown men and his 12-year-old brother murdered before he came to the Games.

"I was beaten seriously. And my little brother was killed," he said.

"Presently, there is some secret killing going on in Sierra Leone. Some ladies here, they are forcing them for this female circumcision."

The second group of six made contact early on Tuesday with a Sydney refugee assistance group, the Northern Beaches Refugee Sanctuary, which escorted them to meet with immigration officials.

Chairperson of the sanctuary, David Addington, said the group were fearful of returning home.

"All of them feel very strongly that if they go back to Sierra Leone, life will be very difficult for them," he said.

A furious response from the government

The disappearance of the 14 members of the 21-person team has sparked a furious response from the Sierra Leone government, which said they had brought disgrace on the nation.

"The government deplores the behaviour of the athletes that have tarnished the image of the west African state," Sports Minister Dennis Bright said in the capital Freetown.

He said the athletes had been warned ahead of the Games not to shame their nation by absconding.

Of the 30-strong team from Sierra Leone which competed at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester four years ago, 21 went missing. Their fate remains unknown.

Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries, having endured a decade of civil war during which tens of thousands of people died.

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