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Australia finds six missing Sierra Leone athletes

Written by: Staff
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SYDNEY, Mar 27 (Reuters) Six of 14 Sierra Leonean athletes who went missing from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne have been found in a Sydney beachside house, an Australian immigration official said today.

Nineteen athletes remain missing after the Games ended on Sunday, with local media reporting on Monday that nine athletes from Cameroon went missing from the athletes' village overnight.

The immigration official told Reuters the Sierra Leonean athletes, three men and three women, had been granted bridging visas to allow them to stay in the country pending a formal visa application.

''We can confirm six members of the Sierra Leone Commonwealth Games team who went missing have been found in Sydney,'' said the official. ''The six have been granted bridging visas until they make an application for a visa.'' Local media said police had received a tip-off and found the athletes at picturesque Harbord Beach, one of Sydney's wealthy northern seaside suburbs.

The Games visas given to athletes do not expire for another month, but Australia has revoked the special visas of the 14 athletes, who make up two-thirds of their country's 21-member team, making them illegal immigrants.

There were similar disappearances at the previous Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, in 2002.

At those games 21 Sierra Leoneans, also around two-thirds of the team, went missing rather than go back to their homeland where civil war was raging.

Prime Minister John Howard has warned potential defectors that Canberra would not give widespread asylum to athletes who went missing from visiting sports teams.

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

These include mandatory detention in heavily guarded detention camps of illegal arrivals, illegal workers and people who overstay visas. Often the migrants are stuck in the camps for years while they fight in the courts to stay in Australia.

The missing Sierra Leonean athletes have not been identified, although local media reported they may have been members of the Sierra Leone women's 4x400 metres relay team that had been due to race on Saturday but withdrew from the competition.

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

REUTERS PM ND1234

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