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A £100 million immigration removal centre was wrecked today when asylum seekers facing deportation lit a series of fires during a mass breakout.

About 20 refugees were thought to have escaped from the Yarl's Wood removal centre near Bedford, but seven men and one woman were later recaptured by police.

Immigration minister Lord Rooker arrived at the centre today to survey the devastation caused by last night's riots.

Officers at the private sector-run complex were still completing a head count to determine the number of asylum seekers who escaped during the chaos.

There were reports that detainees smashed CCTV cameras and stormed the centre's hi-tech control room to destroy equipment and records before fires were lit, causing damage worth an estimated £35 million.

Four female members of the nursing staff were reportedly "besieged" when they were locked in a room by detainees while the building was burning.

Home Secretary David Blunkett's asylum policy was left in serious trouble after the series of blazes spread from the brand new £100 million building's administration wing to a cell block.

Mr Blunkett will be faced with a major headache to decide where the detainees will be housed if Yarl's Wood, as expected, must now close for many months of repairs.

Six people, including two police officers, were injured and the 400 detainees in the centre - failed asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected - were evacuated from the buildings, a fire spokeswoman said.

One Group 4 officer was in hospital after jumping 15ft from a first floor window to escape the inferno.

The GMB union, which represents staff at Yarl's Wood, said it had been sounding concerns for some time about conditions at the centre, which it described as "unacceptable".

Union official Ed Blissett said: "We have been warning of inadequate staffing levels and inadequate training which have meant that workers and asylum seekers have been left in a vulnerable position."

More than 200 officers from Bedfordshire and neighbouring counties were posted around the razor-wire perimeter fence overnight to prevent further escapes. Heavy security remained today at the charred and smoking ruins.

John Bates, from security firm Group 4, which built and runs the centre under a private finance initiative (PFI) contract, said efforts were now under way to determine how many were on the run.

Campaigner Mike Gilmour, of the Campaign to Stop Arbitrary Detentions at Yarl's Wood, said he had been inside the centre when trouble broke out yesterday evening.

He said he believed a row broke out over a sick woman who was handcuffed and had been waiting for medical treatment for three days.

"The only thing we are aware of that could have sparked any trouble was this 55-year-old woman.

"For three days she had been seeking to get medical treatment. Last night she was handcuffed in preparation to take her for treatment and she obviously objected to it.

"It has been suggested that this is the final straw that sparked it off," he said.

Women and children who are housed in a family unit in the centre were today taken by bus to another detention centre, a Home Office spokeswoman said.

The first fire started shortly after 8pm yesterday in the reception hall but was extinguished by firefighters wearing breathing apparatus. Other blazes in the same wing followed.

More than 80 firefighters, including back-up from the Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire brigades, were brought in.

Today Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service acting

deputy chief fire officer Clive Walsh said it had been too dangerous to send crews in to the admin block because of fears the brick-clad building would collapse.

This part of the building was completely destroyed, he said, and fires which broke out in the Delta accommodation wing spread quickly through a roof void.

The complex was not fitted with water sprinklers despite advice given by the fire service last year, he added.

Last night there were 383 people at Yarl's Wood - Britain's largest immigration centre, which was built last year to house 900.

It was one of three new centres opened by the Home Office to speed up the removal of asylum seekers whose applications have failed.

Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire, said an inquiry should be held.

"This was a major incident, although it could have been worse. There will have to be serious questions answered at an inquiry after this. I am worried for the safety of people who live round here," he told GMTV.

A spokeswoman for Bedford Hospital said the injured had received attention for cuts and bruises rather than for burns or smoke inhalation.

The Home Office spokeswoman was unable to confirm if Mr Blunkett would be returning early from a European Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.

Mark Littlewood, from human rights group Liberty, said: "The early indications are that the conditions at the centre were pretty harsh.

Sooner or later it's not surprising an incident like this would occur, which isn't to condone the violence.

"To put hundreds of people together in one place rather than dispersing them across the country is much more likely to trigger this sort of incident.

"We need to take a long, hard look at the incident and at the treatment of asylum seekers in general. They need to be treated fairly, calmly and justly not like common criminals."

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