Runaway athletes granted visas

2006-03-29 08:38
Sydney - All fourteen Sierra Leone athletes who fled the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in a bid to escape being returned to their war-torn country have been allowed to remain temporarily in Australia, officials said on Wednesday.

Twelve of the athletes, including three women who feared circumcision if returned home, were granted temporary bridging visas earlier this week.

The two remaining male athletes handed themselves in to officials in Sydney, an immigration department spokesperson said.

"These two athletes have now been granted (bridging) visas," he told AFP.

The 14 Sierra Leoneans were not the only athletes to go missing from the Commonwealth Games village last week but they were the only ones to remain in the country unlawfully after their team management asked for their visas to be cancelled.

The other athletes who absconded from Melbourne - nine athletes from Cameroon, a Tanzanian boxer and a Bangladeshi runner - are entitled to remain in Australia until their visas expire on April 26.

Two of these athletes, believed to be from Cameroon, were found by immigration officials in the western city of Perth on Tuesday.

Fear circumcision, violence and death

The Sierra Leoneans, who now have until April 13 to make a formal application to remain in Australia, have said they fear circumcision, violence and death if returned to their impoverished west African homeland.

"Presently, there is some secret killing going on in Sierra Leone. Some ladies here, they are forcing them for this female circumcision," 19-year-old athlete Hassan Fullah said earlier this week.

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.

The country's athletes have a poor record of returning home - of the 30-strong team which competed at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester four years ago, 21 went missing. Their fate remains unknown.

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