Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has finally broken his silence about the dangerous events on Manus Island last Friday, where 100 bullets were sprayed into the Australian-run immigration facility by "drunken" soldiers, but Manus asylum seekers say the claims are "lies".
Dutton has also come under fire from groups advocating for refugees' rights who have called on the Minister to present evidence to support, what they label, his "unsubstantiated" claims.
Asylum seekers barricaded themselves in thclaims eir rooms last week after the facility was stormed by armed Papua New Guinean soldiers. Reports claimed 100 rounds were fired during the incident, and several asylum seekers were injured in the fracas, prompting fresh calls for the centre to be immediately closed and the residents -- 861 men, at last count in January -- brought to Australia.
PNG police blamed the "unethical and unacceptable behaviour of the drunken soldiers" and claimed the incident was sparked by an altercation over asylum seekers using a soccer field on navy premises. But Australian officials had remained tight-lipped over the incident, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection declining to issue statements or further information about the incident in the Australian-run facility.
Despite a media blitz in recent days, featuring several press conferences and interviews on changes to Australia's working visa and citizenship rules, neither the immigration minister nor Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were asked about Manus by journalists.
But on Thursday, nearly a full week later, the immigration minister finally spoke about the incident, stating the shooting and violence was sparked by claims that asylum seekers had "led" a young local boy into the centre.
Dutton spoke to Sky News, saying "rising concerns" over claims and cases of sexual assault by asylum seekers on local people had led to the violence. The PNG police statement did not make any reference to any such incident.
"There was an alleged incident where three asylum seekers were alleged to be leading a local five-year-old boy back toward the facility. There was a lot of angst around that within the local PNG community," Dutton said in an interview with David Speers, which will be broadcast in full at 8pm on Sky.
"There was concern about why the boy was being led, for what purpose he was being led away back into the regional processing centre. I think it's fair to say the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault.
"I don't have the full details and those matters are under investigation."
However, Manus asylum seeker and journalist Behrouz Boochani told The Huffington Post Australia that Dutton's claim about the young boy is "a big lie". Boochani said centre officials informed asylum seekers on Thursday that they were banned from the soccer ground which allegedly sparked the clash.
"If the fight started because the refugees wanted to take a boy to the centre, why did the navy commander order that we cannot use the soccer ground?" he said in a text message.
"I have been researching about the incident in the past few days and it's the first time I heard anything about a small boy. [Dutton] is lying and he wants to deny that he has responsibility for refugees and Australian citizens who are working here."
Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, Ian Rintoul told HuffPost Australia "there's no foundation" for Dutton's "absurd" comments.
"There's no foundation for that comment, it's absurd to suggest that any incident like that happened," he said.
"I think this is something that has been completely manufactured as an attempt to try and deflect away from the seriousness of the situation in which his inaction not only left the asylum seekers and refugees' safety in jeopardy but also Australian employees.
"The idea that a 5-year-old, or anybody, could be led from a soccer field up the hill to the detention centre unimpeded, let alone the idea that they could get through the locked gates of the centre, is simply beyond belief."
Rintoul also called on Dutton to present any evidence he may have to prove the claims.
"If Dutton has a shred of evidence, he should put that forward rather than making these wild suggestions."
Boochani said Dutton's comments were "dangerous" for relations on Manus between locals and asylum seekers.
"The main issue is that the navy shot the refugees' rooms and staff offices. His comment is very dangerous and makes this place more unsafe because he is going to make more conflict between refugees and local people," he said.
Sky's full interview with Dutton will air at 8pm on Thursday.
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