Vietnamese detainees in Hong Kong stage uprising

burning building

May 10, 1996
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT)

From Correspondent Patricia Chew

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Hundreds of Vietnamese boat people facing forced repatriation staged a riot at the Whitehead detention camp on Friday, and about 200 escaped. Less than half were captured by nightfall.

Police called the breakout a well-planned operation, launched just after 4 a.m. Vietnamese torched several buildings. Armed with homemade weapons, they tore down two wire mesh gates, allowing people, including families with small children, to escape. (1.1MB QuickTime movie of damage from riot)

soldiers in riot gear

Police fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas at those remaining, many of whom staged rooftop protests. Helicopters bombarded the buildings with water.

Despite the uprising, the government vowed to continue sending the refugees back to Vietnam. As a search continued in the rural New Territories for those who escaped, hundreds of those at the camp were sent by truck to another detention facility.

There are still close to 18,000 former boat people in Hong Kong's camps. Many have been living in prison-like conditions for more than six years.

Fifteen guards were taken hostage early in the melee . They were released four hours later, unharmed but for one man who had been stabbed in the leg.

Fifty people from both sides were reportedly injured before police were able to regain control of the camp.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says they are job-seekers, not refugees. But many of them fear they will be persecuted if they are forced to return.

There have been other breakouts, other riots. But this incident is seen as a direct response to the government's efforts to speed up the forced repatriation process.


Authorities had planned to transfer some 1,600 inmates here to another already full camp in preparation for Whitehead's shutdown.

China has made it clear it wants all the camps emptied by July 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule. A top official reiterated that policy and called on the British government to act responsibly.

Violent resistance has been increasing as time grows shorter. With Friday's breakout, there are fears that it will continue to escalate.

Meanwhile, police are still searching for the remaining escapees. But even if they are found, they may still have succeeded in one respect -- since the building housing all their identity documents was destroyed in the fire.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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