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An undated image released November 10, 2017 shows detainees staging a silent protest inside the compound at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Refugee Action Coalition/Handout via REUTERS


By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - About 20 asylum seekers departed an abandoned Australian-run detention centre in Papua New Guinea on Friday, leaving hundreds threatened with forcible eviction within days, amid an immigration standoff that has blighted Australia for years.

Nearly 600 men have barricaded themselves into the Manus island centre for more than 10 days without regular food or running water, defying closure attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea, in what the United Nations calls a "looming humanitarian crisis".

The men fear violent reprisals from island dwellers if they move to transit centres, pending possible resettlement in the United States. The camp was closed on Oct. 31 and water and power have been cut off.

Bowing to pressure from Papua New Guinea, which said it would forcibly evict and "apprehend" any holdouts on Saturday, around 20 men left the camp for a transit centre, three asylum seekers told Reuters.

The rest vowed to stay put, setting the scene for a clash.

"Some left this morning, but there are more than 500 men that remain and we will not move," said one detainee, who sought anonymity for fear of jeopardising U.S. resettlement prospects.

In Sydney, about 200 protesters picketed a fundraiser for Australia's governing Liberal Party, clashing with police, heckling arriving guests and demanding that the men be allowed to settle on the mainland.

In Melbourne, more than 1,000 people held similar protests, the Australian Associated Press news agency said.

Australia has used the centre, and a camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, to detain asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat. It says boat arrivals will never enter Australia, even if found to be refugees, as this would encourage people smugglers in Asia.

Australia says the policy prevents people drowning at sea, but it has been widely condemned.

"We aren't going to be stood over by people that have better accommodation to move to, but are trashing their current accommodation in an attempt to try and twist our arm to get to Australia," Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said in a radio interview.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee urged Australia to bring its migration laws into line with world standards. It is concerned about conditions in Manus and on Nauru, citing safety fears and instances of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and suspicious deaths.

The asylum seekers, drawn largely from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Syria, use rubbish bins to collect rainwater and set up makeshift shelters to protect against the tropical sun and rain.

Papua New Guinea police returned to dismantle parts of the camp on Friday, large parts of its fence having been removed the previous day, stoking fears of reprisals from islanders.

"They are destroying our shelters," said Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist from Iran, detained for more than four years. "They destroyed the rubbish bins where we have been collecting water too."

(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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