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Missing Sierra Leone athletes to have visas revoked

Written by: Staff
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MELBOURNE, Mar 26 (Reuters) The 14 Sierra Leonean athletes who went missing from the Commonwealth Games village are set to become illegal immigrants upon the request of officials from the African nation today.

Complying with the demand for the visas to be revoked, Commonwealth Games officials said they had decided to withdraw the accreditations of the athletes, who make up two-thirds of the 21-member team.

Australia's Immigration Department added that the loss of accreditation meant that the special Games visas, which had been due to expire on April 26, would become invalid from midnight on Sunday.

''At the request of the management of the Sierra Leone team, the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games Corporation has withdrawn accreditation from 14 Sierra Leone athletes officially described as missing by Victoria (state) police,'' Games organisers said in a statement.

The Immigration Department said it was well-placed to deal with visa defaulters and would talk to each of the Sierra Leone athletes about their individual circumstances if they came forward.

''We strongly urge the athletes, or anyone who knows their whereabouts, to contact local police or their nearest department of immigration office,'' an immigration spokesman said.

HOWARD'S WARNING Prime Minister John Howard has already warned that Australia does not give ''blanket asylum'' to athletes who go missing from sporting teams visiting the country.

Australia has some of the toughest policies in the world against illegal immigration.

The policies include the mandatory detention of illegal arrivals, illegal workers and people who overstay visas in heavily-guarded detention camps, often for years while their cases are heard.

Eleven athletes were reported missing to police between last Tuesday and Friday, while another three had disappeared from the athletes village in suburban Melbourne by Sunday.

There was no information about the latest three to go missing, although local media reported they were likely members of the Sierra Leone women's 4x400 metres relay team that had been due to race on Saturday but withdrew from the competition.

A Tanzanian boxer and a Bangladeshi runner have also gone missing.

Twenty-one Sierra Leone athletes, or about 70 percent of the team, went missing during the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Impoverished Sierra Leone was ravaged by a brutal civil war from 1991-2002 that cost thousands of lives.

REUTERS PM BST1545

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