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Australia searches for missing Games athletes

Written by: Staff
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SYDNEY, Apr 27 (Reuters) Twenty-four Commonwealth Games athletes and officials are now illegally in Australia after their Games visas expired last night and another 31 have sought asylum, immigration officials said today.

''It is critical those athletes and officials now unlawfully in the country make immediate contact with my department,'' Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said in a statement.

Vanstone said if the missing athletes and officials did not contact authorities, action would be taken to force them to leave the country. Officials did not identify nationalities.

A further 31 athletes and officials have applied for protection and their applications were being processed, the minister said.

Fourteen Sierra Leonean athletes, two-thirds of the nation's 21-member team, went missing from the athlete's village during last month's Games in Melbourne.

The Sierra Leonean athletes have applied for asylum claiming they fear persecution if they return to their impoverished homeland, which was racked by civil war from 1991 to 2002 that claimed around 50,000 lives.

Vanstone said 7,000 athletes and officials were granted special Games visas which expired at midnight April 26.

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 and are believed to have taken refuge in London's large Sierra Leonean community.

REUTERS KD RN1038

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