Scores of illegal immigrants were persuaded to return to the Safi detention centre half an hour after they broke out and assembled outside the airport runway perimeter fence, yesterday.

No one was injured during the early afternoon short-lived drama, which was resolved following the personal intervention of Police Commissioner John Rizzo.

The army said the immigrants, possibly over 200, tore down a section of the perimeter fence of their compound and made their way towards the main gate of the Safi barracks.

The immigrants gathered in the main road outside the barracks where they were restrained from moving on by the numerous army and police reinforcements dispatched on site within minutes.

As the detainees demanded freedom, Mr Rizzo spoke to the ringleaders and after some 30 minutes, the immigrants decided to walk back to the detention centre en masse.

About 30 of the police officers sent to Safi remained on site to ensure law and order.

An army helicopter hovered over Safi immediately after the escape as a precautionary measure.

At no time did any unauthorised personnel enter the airport runway nearby. Sources said parts of the detention centre were damaged during the mass escape.

A less than sturdy chicken-wire fence around the barracks makes escapes hard to contain.

The incident, a day after World Refugee Day, is the second mass escape from the detention centre this year. Last March, about 60 illegal immigrants managed to take their protest to the airport after escaping from the Safi detention centre about two miles away.

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